Lionel Messi and Co go up against a tiny island playing in its first World Cup, but the mismatch is not as seismic it may seem to be.
Two-time winners Argentina had their struggles during qualification and Iceland, England’s conquerors at Euro 2016, rode the crest of a golden wave to earn their rightful place at the game’s greatest competition.
Here’s a tactical breakdown ahead of the Group D opener on Saturday:
MESSI MEETS MEZA
Sergio Aguero’s inclusion isn’t the only big news to be emanating out of Argentina. Maximiliano Meza, little-known outside of South America but a star for Independiente, will be keeping Juventus dynamo Paulo Dybala moping on the bench.
La Albiceleste are crying out for versatility, they’ve got about 10 No10s in Russia or in front of the sofa, and while Meza can and will nominally start there, his ability to play almost anywhere in midfield and attack is a huge boon for Sampaoli.
It means the 25-year-old will be comfortable flitting in and out of any position that a free-roaming Messi vacates. At 5ft11 he may not be built like a mountain, but he also has an aerial presence about him – important in one of the tiniest teams of the tournament.
ICELAND SET TO DELIVER
Iceland don’t play hoofball – far from it. But they maximise all aspects of the game, however ugly they may be, and that includes asserting dominance at set-pieces.
The average height of the Iceland squad is more than 6ft and they quite literally tower over everyone else in the competition.
With Gylfi Sigurdsson pinging in some laser-pointer set-pieces with skipper Aron Gunnarsson in tow, he of the massive throw-ins, a diminutive Argentina will be sorely tested.
Sampaoli is expected to combat this with a zonal defensive system, and it’s a good job they’ve had extra practice time as one shred of miscommunication could prove fatal.
DECONSTRUCTING SAMPAOLI’S 2-3-3-2
It’s a formation that Diego Maradona branded ‘ridiculous’. Unorthodox as it may seem, Diego, we’ll trust Sampaoli on this one.
With Nicolas Otamendi, Marcos Rojo and Federico Fazio the only realistic options in central defence, entrusting them to press high and aggressively would be tantamount to pressing self-destruct.
Instead the former Chile coach has come up with this new-fangled formation to explain how he wants Argentina to ‘control every level of the pitch’.
It’s essentially a 4-4-2 diamond. Those slow centre-backs the first level, then Javier Mascherano flanked by his wing-backs, Angel Di Maria, Maximiliano Meza and either Lucas Biglia or Giovanni Lo Celso controlling the next rung up before we get to Messi and Aguero. Messi, presumably, can appear on any level he well pleases.
Sampaoli, then, is desperate for players to have options in every sector of the pitch – as he plainly doesn’t trust them without the ball.
Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ are facing lofty expectations at the World Cup in Russia.
Packed with talent, the national side will begin their path in the tournament against Panama on Monday.
Though the pressure will be on them to deliver, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez believes his players are ready to meet the challenge.
“Everyone understands the expectations, everyone understands the feelings back in Belgium, but I think this group of players are ready for that,” Martinez said.
Watch the video below to see Martinez’s full comments.
France, one of the real favourites for the tournament, begin their campaign on Saturday at 14:00 (UAE time) in Kazan against a team not expected to go far in this World Cup, Australia.
But will the superstars from Les Bleus trip up against the minnows from down south?
Australia have come in to some promising form in their last two matches with a 4-1 win over the Czech Republic and a 2-1 success over Hungary but with new coach Bert van Marwijk only appointed in January the Socceroos have had precious little time to prepare for a star studded Les Bleus side with a market value of around $1.3 billion.
Here’s a few talking points building up to kick off.
FRANCE AVOIDING THE HORROR SHOW… FOR NOW
France are famous for their unpredictable mood swings and the most defining factor of how France fare in the tournament can have more to do with joie de vivre than beau football.
Well, the good news if you are a fan of Les Bleus is that the mood in the camp seems decidedly upbeat.
The team have made the offbeat decision to base themselves in humble Glebovets, described as a “small town in the middle of nowhere, an hour drive from Moscow”.
The tiny stadium the France team, worth over Euro 1bn, are training at is ringed by grim Soviet Union era blocks of flats. The inhabitants have no idea who is training on the local football oval, nor do they care.
Perfect for the low key build up France require. If they are to go deep in the tournament there will be plenty of time for headlines down the track.
But despite the surroundings the mood in the camp is upbeat. Training sessions have been behind closed doors but even from across the road, media can hear laughter and plenty of bon vivant.
The team are staying in a four-star hotel nearby, light years away from the five star splendour they are used to. But according to reports the players are happy and plenty of homely touches have been added. Some of the players have even enjoyed a horror movie in the hotel’s cinema.
Anything to not think about football too much at this stage.
Keep the joie de vivre going a little longer before the hard work begins.
OLD DOG – NEW TRICKS
It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks. Well at least that’s according to Socceroos legend Tim Cahill who he says is learning a lot from new coach Bert van Marwijk.
“Bert, when he walks into the room, he has a presence, but he also has a softness about him that the players can relate to,” said Cahill.
“But his coaching style is relatable to football today, and also in simplifying, understanding the group.
“I’ve enjoyed the training because you’d think at 38 years old you can’t learn. Well, the staff that he puts around him, I’m thankful that at 38 I’m learning something and I’m becoming a better player.”
Along with defender Mark Milligan, Cahill is the other Socceroo set for his fourth World Cup and although Milligan says Van Marwijk’s training routine has been “borderline torture” Cahill still rates Guus Hiddink’s training camp for the 2006 World Cup as the hardest he’s been through.
Cahill, who has recently been released my Millwall, is unlikely to start in his fourth dance on the world stage with Van Marwijk’s preferred lone striking position up front instead taken by Andrew Nabbout, 13-years Cahill’s junior.
“Timmy” may still have an impact off the bench and with his phenomenal goal-scoring record you wouldn’t back against him nabbing one late but will that be enough for Australia?
Probable France team to play Australia. Giroud, Matuidi to miss out as Deschamps goes with youth pic.twitter.com/n9Gw45yEJE— Matt Spiro (@mattspiro) June 14, 2018
UMMM… DIDIER, WHO’S PLAYING?
The biggest question surrounding France is who is actually going to take the field when they line up against the Socceroos on Saturday.
There are two schools of thought around this. The first is that manager Didier Deschamps wants to keep his opponents guessing, not giving any clues about France’s playing style away until the last possible moment.
The second, more widely held, is that he has no idea of his best combination – which is very easy to understand when you have so many rare talents at your disposal. Any side that could leave Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette and Manchester United’s Anthony Martial at home must have a bit to spare.
“The coach has judged that this formation would bring more to the team,” Kylian Mbappe said on Wednesday. “The squad and I have full faith in him.”
“We are putting together a new formation,” Griezmann told the media last weekend. “We are trying to work on it, to make it our own. We still have a week to improve it.”
From those around this camp a few things do seem clear: Corentin Tolisso will be preferred over Blaise Matuidi alongside Pogba and N’Golo Kante in midfield while in attack Olivier Giroud, who had been expected to start against Australia is still not 100 percent after a clash of heads with Matt Miazga in the friendly against the USA last weekend, which means Griezmann, Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele should make up the front three.