But the 30-year-old’s response was found wanting when Iceland’s heroic goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson pushed away his meek 64th-minute penalty kick. Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero and Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason earlier exchanged first-half goals in quick succession at Spartak Stadium during a memorable 1-1 draw for the European debutants in Group D.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 11
Shots on target – 3
Touches – 115
Passes – 71
Key passes – 3
Dribbles – 9
Dispossessed – 7
Messi’s latest shot at achieving eternal World Cup glory saw him detailed as struggling La Albiceleste’s only hope.
This billing proved apt within minutes of kick-off as his obsequious team-mates stood off and left Messi to dictate play from deep.
A personal battle between the Barcelona forward and Halldorsson ensured, from which the shot stopper definitively got the upper hand.
7 - Lionel Messi (11) attempted seven shots more than Cristiano Ronaldo (4) on the opening matchday of the 2018 World Cup, but the Portuguese forward scored three goals compared to Messi's none. Rivals.#ARGISL #ARG #POR #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/Tjp8KkGkAG— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 16, 2018
MAKING A DIFFERENCE – It has been a personal crusade from Messi to drag the beaten 2014 finalists to this point. In qualifying, they averaged 2.1 points per game with him and 0.9 without him.
The story repeated in the competition proper. Compared to any team-mate, Messi had against Iceland: eight more shots, six more dribbles and was dispossessed six more times as he tried to up the ante.
SPOT-KICK MELTDOWN – If there is one stain on Messi’s reputation, it is his efficacy from 12 yards.
Much more doubt surrounds him when he is awarded a penalty-kick, than compared even to a free-kick.
This failed attempt was the 24th of his celebrated career according to Transfermarkt.com, with 79 flying into the net – the latest coming in May 30’s 4-0 friendly win against Haiti.
17th min DRIBBLE: Messi turns on the afterburners and drifts past three Iceland defenders, but Aguero cannot quite find Paris Saint-Germain winger Angel Di Maria.
18th min CHANCE: In an instance, Messi can change everything. He slips away from his marker on the edge of the penalty area before unleashing a left-footed rocket that Randers goalkeeper Halldorsson emphatically punches to safety.
22nd min CHANCE: The Barcelona great is trying to find his range. This time from 20 yards, he choose to curl a strong effort that Halldorsson smothers.
45th min HANDBALL: Argentina break up the pitch after an Iceland penalty shout, but former Barca team-mate Javier Mascherano’s rushed pass forces Messi into a handball.
64th min PENALTY MISS: Messi chips a ball in from deep and Aguero is barged over by Bristol City full-back Hordur Magnusson. Polish referee Szymon Marciniak points to the spot, but Messi’s weak effort is comfortably saved by Halldorsson as he dives to his right.
71st min CHANCE: Messi is gifted the ball 30 yards from goal by a weak header and bursts past the initial challenger, yet he runs into a dead end. The stunted move eventually ends with a shot from 20 yards by bright substitute Ever Banega.
81st min CHANCE: Iceland hearts stop as Messi curls in an effort from his favoured spot on the edge of the area, but it drifts narrowly wide.
92nd min CHANCE: Danced his way inside the area within the dying moments. It looked like a late winner would follow, yet his effort flew over the crossbar.
If you judge Messi by his own stratospheric standards, then this was an unsatisfactory outing.
He just could not get the better of the determined Iceland keeper. But his Argentina colleagues absolved all personal responsibility, plus do not forget his ball forced the spot-kick.
If Messi is to fulfil his destiny and lift the World Cup, this match acts as concrete evidence that even he cannot do it alone.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Diego Costa produced the perfect retort to cries that his physical play does not befit the Spain jersey, striking twice during an electric 3-3 draw with Portugal as their World Cup 2018 campaign got under way in gripping fashion.
Only the superhuman efforts of Cristiano Ronaldo could deny the Atletico Madrid colossus a winning performance in Group B.
Here, we analyse his display:
Goals – 2
Assists – 0
Shots – 3
Shots on target – 2
Touches – 29
Passes – 18
Key passes – 0
Dribbles – 2
Dispossessed – 0
Costa’s raw edge was favoured by new head coach Fernando Hierro.
This faith was rewarded when he became a human battering ram versus old Real Madrid rival Pepe and then expertly found the bottom corner to make it 1-1 with a first-ever shot at the World Cup.
After the break, his predatory instincts allowed him to tap-in Sergio Busquets’ header. This made it 2-2 and completed an atypical La Roja brace.
TAKE YOUR CHANCES: Opportunities usually come in quick succession when you lead the attack for Spain. The key is to make them count.
A return of two goals from three attempts is exemplary. Valencia’s Rodrigo and Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas boast more refined qualities, but you would not back either to produce such figures.
PROVE THE DOUBTERS WRONG: Costa is meant to be too brutish to play striker for Spain, his over-reliance on brawn over brains making him an incongruous presence.
Yet at Fisht Stadium, a sterling exhibition of centre-forward play was put on. The Atleti powerhouse’s pass accuracy of 88.9 per cent was greater than Manchester City magician David Silva’s 85.7 per cent, plus he was not dispossessed once.
24th min GOAL: Did what no other Spain striking option could do and knocked Besiktas warrior Pepe clean off his feet – with the officials declining to refer to VAR. Then held off several challenges and rasped an unstoppable effort low into the bottom corner.
35th min CHANCE: Tried to follow-up Real Madrid playmaker Isco’s sensational shot that rattled the crossbar, but was both offside and denied by Sporting Lisbon goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
55th min GOAL: Was in the right spot to poke home Busquets’ header that came from a lofted David Silva’s free-kick. Utterly un-Spain, totally Costa.
77th min SUBSTITUTED: His night’s work was done and he trudged off for Aspas.
This was everything Hierro could have asked for – and more.
Costa bullied Pepe and Jose Fonte, a centre-back pairing who were the best at Euro 2016 for the champions. He was then unflinching in front of goal, only snapping at one second-half shot.
The Brazil-born striker’s presence adds an extra element to the Spanish passing carousel that could prove invaluable during the defining weeks to come.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Caution had ruled the day at Saint Petersburg Stadium previously. But a free-kick deep into added time was ruinously headed home by the St. Pauli centre forward to hand Team Melli just their second-ever victory in the tournament.
Here are the talking points:
SLIM PICKINGS IN SAINT PETERSBURG
Anyone expecting a World Cup classic would have been well advised to look elsewhere.
Stoicism rather than style defined both combatants in qualifying – and the same was true in the competition proper. The late own goal provided a fitting denouement.
Morocco, to earn their first appearance since 1998, conceded no goals in the stringent final round of CAF qualifying. Iran saved the concession of their only two goals in the same stage of the AFC process for the last fixture against Syria.
By half-time, only two shots on target apiece had been registered. Iran’s pair came from Rubin Kazan striker Sardor Azmoun’s spurned one-on-one and AZ Alkmaar forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s subsequent rebound in the 42nd minute, while an earlier goalmouth scramble was the highlight for the toothless Atlas Lions.
After the break, Ajax talent Hakim Ziyech forced a fine low save from team Melli goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. Then, the drama followed through replacement Bouhaddouz’s infamous interjection.
For Morocco, they possessed creation in spades through Al Jazira centre midfielder Mbark Boussoufa, Galatasaray playmaker Younes Belhanda and Ziyech – a player with an African high 11 assists in qualifying and 2017/18 Eredivisie best of 15.
Yet, the latter two dropped deep and were then detailed to ping harmless long balls into the channels against a deep-lying – and grateful – Iran defence.
Carlos Queiroz’s men hung in there and embraced their moment of fortune. This now piles pressure on Portugal in the likely race for second spot.
GOLDEN BOY IS LOSING HIS SHINE
Azmoun was the emerging wonder boy four years ago, surprisingly cut in the final stages from Iran’s World Cup squad for Brazil.
This time, he arrived in Russia – the land of his employment with Rubin – with an impressive 23 international goals in 33 appearances. A true heir to the bullish Ali Daei.
Yet, 2017/18 witnessed the first backwards steps in a career defined by its precipitous rise.
His summer return to Rubin from Rostov was contested. Then, only five goals followed in 28 matches.
Uncertainty defined both his failed first-half one-on-one and woeful second-half pass to Olympiakos attacker Karim Ansarifard.
Showcasing his true quality in the games to come is key to reinforcing Iran’s hopes of a debut knockout-stage run.
ASIA’S SHOT IN THE ARM
The recriminations have been predictably hyperbolic since Saudi Arabia’s 5-0 thumping by hosts Russia on Thursday night.
‘How could they let these teams in?’, was the predictable statement.
What the floundering Green Falcons produced was embarrassing for all concerned. But these aspersions shouldn’t be extended to the whole continent.
Iran did not produce magical football on Friday in Asia’s first World Cup victory since 2010, enjoying just 37-per-cent possession. A repetition of becoming the first team since 1966 to score a goal in a half of football in the World Cup without attempting a single shot in that half is not likely to be repeated.
Mitigation is provided by the cancellation of pre-event friendlies because of organisational and political issues.
They also flew through Asian qualifying, boast an abundance of talented players in Europe and should only get better from here.
Australia, Japan and South Korea can be inspired by this granite performance.