Hannes Halldorsson was the hero for minnows Iceland during their incredible run at Euro 2016 and he continued these feats when World Cup 2018 got under way.
Portugal and Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was left frustrated in France two years ago by the Randers goalkeeper. This time, it was the turn of Lionel Messi.
Halldorsson pulled off a string of superb stops during Iceland’s World Cup debut, culminating in a second-half penalty save from the Barcelona icon in Argentina’s 1-1 draw at Spartak Stadium.
Halldorsson was the last line of defence for an expertly drilled Iceland.
Head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson made sure his troops defended with two banks of four, cutting out any passing options for five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi when he dropped deep. But even this tight game plan was not impenetrable.
Halldorsson punched away one Messi rocket in the early stages and dove to his right to gratefully palm away the great man’s poor spot-kick later on. His six saves also featured a fine stop from substitute Cristian Pavon.
SHOWING NO FEAR – Staring down the likes of Ronaldo and Messi is not a familiar feeling for Halldorsson. The 34-year-old’s day job sees him employed by Randers, a mid-table outfit from Denmark’s top flight.
But this lack of familiarity with the big time has not meant he’s done himself a disservice when thrust into the limelight. There wasn’t any reticence from Halldorsson, no matter what Messi and Co threw at him.
His handling was superb throughout and not even Sergio Aguero’s unstoppable 19th-minute goal could shake him.
PASSING WAS A PROBLEM – No matter Iceland’s startling progression during this decade, they knew they’d be up against it in spells against the Argentines.
Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason and Everton playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson were likely to be the only true outlets when pressure needed to be relieved.
But this does not excuse a pass-completion of just 39.4 per cent in the Russian capital.
Argentina boasted 78-per-cent possession, which meant Iceland had to be economical with the ball. Aimless punts up the field by Halldorsson will be punished by better opposition.
13 – Since 1966, only Luigi Riva has attempted more shots in a World Cup game (13 vs both Sweden and Israel in 1970) without scoring than Lionel Messi did today against Iceland (since 1966). Shocker.#ARGISL #ARG #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/rhnROlfewx— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 16, 2018
Halldorsson comes alive at international level, acting as the symbol of Iceland’s defiance.
His team-mates must have drawn inspiration from his antics in keeping out Messi and refusing to be cowed by Aguero’s unstoppable goal.
Remarkably, he’s faced 21 attempts on goal by Messi and Ronaldo in successive tournaments. The men who’ve held an iron grip on the Ballon d’Or during the past decade have not been able to force a way through.
A script even part-time film director Halldorsson would have struggled to conjure.
RATING – 9/10
Yussuf Poulsen made up for conceding Saturday’s second penalty-kick via the Video Assistant Referee by later finishing off Denmark’s one move of genuine quality as they beat valiant Peru 1-0 at World Cup 2018.
The lanky RB Leipzig forward was on hand to sweep in at the near post on 59 minutes after a breathtaking counter-attack.
At the end of the first half, he’d been belatedly punished for felling Christian Cueva in the area. But the Peru playmaker blazed his effort wildly over.
DENMARK CAN ONLY GET BETTER, WHILE PERU COULDN’T FIND A FINISH
There was plenty of cause for optimism when the World Cup draw pitted these two nations together in Group C.
The South Americans are back on the global stage for the first time since 1982, boast flourishing forwards in Cueva and Edison Flores, plus head coach Ricardo Gareca possesses a commitment to attacking football.
For Denmark, their Norwegian boss Age Hareide has earned a reputation as a skilled proponent of an aggressive and direct game.
To add further intrigue, both came in with national-record 15 match unbeaten runs.
They left with only Denmark’s historic stint alive. But this does not tell the full tale.
The Danes put in a confused display, reverting to the possession football of old despite recent success with a contrasting style. The sight of Feyenoord marksman Nicolai Jorgensen aimlessly drifting into the channels was all too frequent.
Poulsen’s smart finish after a fantastic breakaway was the team’s one moment of true quality. To solidify hopes of a first round-of-16 berth since 2002, they must reconnect with what brought them to this point – starting with Thursday’s clash against Australia.
For Peru, their effervescent performance had everything but a goal. They had more shots (17/10), shots on target (six/three) and enjoyed more possession (53 per cent/47 per cent).
Why they didn’t start record scorer Paolo Guerrero after the freezing of his drugs ban is the only cause for regret.
Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was Denmark’s best player, making six saves – two of which were superb from Watford forward Andre Carrillo’s low drive and Lokomotiv Moscow star Jefferson Farfan’s close-range attempt.
This was a genuine hard-luck story for the South Americans. Find a finish against France and they could write a great upset.
CUEVA CAN COME AGAIN
Cueva’s World Cup dream turned into a nightmare in the final moments of the first half.
A golden opportunity to score his nation’s first goal at the tournament in 36 years ended up with the ball skied high over the crossbar and tears flowing as he trudged off, crestfallen, at the break.
Yet this moment should not define Cueva. The Sao Paulo magician was otherwise wonderful.
An expert cutback drew the penalty from Poulsen, via VAR, that he then missed. Soon after Denmark’s goal, he again artfully earned space in a packed area before Aalborg’s Edison Flores miscued.
The 26-year-old has the ability to create a World Cup memory to cherish in the matches to come.
SISTO AND ERIKSEN ARE A JOY TO BEHOLD
Denmark already boast one outstanding double act in their history.
The Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian, lit the fuse together for ‘Danish Dynamite’ from 1987-1998. Even though only the latter was present for Euro 1992’s dumbfounding success, their achievements in tandem live on.
Suitable heirs have now emerged in Celta Vigo’s Pione Sisto and Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen.
Between them, they contributed a combined 19 top-flight assists last term. This craftsmanship was again on show for their nation’s sole highlight from a mixed evening.
Poulsen provided the finish at Mordovia Arena, but it was the double creative threat which made it a moment to remember.
Sisto floated into a pocket of space within his own half and arced a pass which intersected the Peru midfield and went straight into the feet of the advancing Eriksen.
The Ajax youth product then took his time, bewitched the back-stepping centre-backs and dinked a perfectly weighted ball into the path of the goalscorer to finish off.
Sisto only lasted 10 minutes more on the pitch. But his, and Eriksen’s, work was done.
Victory on Saturday increases the likelihood there will be more flashes of brilliance to come, in the group stage and beyond.
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