Argentina against Iceland. The type of improbable, glorious match-up that only happens at a World Cup.
Lionel Messi and Co go up against a tiny island playing in its first World Cup but the mismatch is not so seismic as it may seem.
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.
Below, we take a look at some of the players to watch out for from top to bottom.
LIONEL MESSI v GYLFI SIGURDSSON
Messi is the skeleton key of all key players – not just because of his otherworldly talents, but the fact that his supporting cast with Argentina is distinctly average.
Much like at Barcelona, Messi is given free rein at international level – coach Jorge Sampaoli has admitted as much that this is his team – yet there is no Sergio Busquets to expertly recycle possession, nor a tigerish Luis Suarez to keep defences that little more watchful.
Don’t be surprised to see Messi take the ball from defence in an effort to jump-start an attack. If Sampaoli can thread together a semblance of a system that unleashes him in space and masks a lack of pace in defence, Argentina will contend. It’s a big if.
As for Iceland, Gylfi Sigurdsson is by far the most creative outlet from a tiny nation that holds just 400,000 inhabitants and every one of those souls will be crossing their fingers over his fitness.
The 28-year-old has been working up to eight hours a day to ensure he’ll be ready to take on Messi and the rest of La Albiceleste after a knee injury with Everton back in March threatened to end his World Cup campaign before it even started.
At his best – and he hasn’t been in his first season at Goodison Park – Sigurdsson has a special eye for a pass and a penchant for the spectacular goal, be it with the dead or live ball. He’ll play in the hole behind Alfred Finnbogason and threaten a cumbersome Argentina defence.
JAVIER MASCHERANO v ARON GUNNARSSON
That a long-in-the-tooth Javier Mascherano is still anchoring Argentina all these years later speaks for how threadbare this squad truly is.
That’s not to besmirch Mascherano’s legacy, as he prepares for an astonishing 144th cap against Iceland, but expecting a 34-year-old who now plays for Hebei China Fortune to shield an already ponderous defence is just asking for trouble.
With his physical powers on the wane Mascherano must rely more on his intelligence than the hounding he has given so many an opposing attacker in his career, especially as he operates back in midfield after evolving into a centre-back during his Barcelona days.
Aron Gunnarsson will be jostling with Mascherano for midfield supremacy and his tenacity is emblematic of all that has gone so right for Iceland.
Those ice-blue eyes are enough to pierce the hardiest of souls for starters. And that’s what you get with Gunnarsson – full-blooded intensity, tackling that leaves a mental if not physical mark on the opposition, and a leader that the rest of the side rally around.
Whether that’ll be enough to disrupt Argentina’s prettiest passers is questionable. Gunnarsson, 29, was in and out of the team for Cardiff City during their promotion campaign into the Premier League as injuries took their toll.
NICOLAS OTAMENDI v KARI ARNASON
Nicolas Otamendi was a man transformed under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City last season, imbued with a belief and willingness to take calculated risks with and without the ball.
Sampaoli would love to do the same with him at Argentina, but Otamendi’s ball skills sadly do not look the part without the necessary full-backs to tuck in and help him out – both in defence and attack.
The centre-back’s job will be to keep it simple and feed the ball into the next ‘level’ of Sampaoli’s 2-3-3-2 system – Mascherano and two wing-backs.
If all goes well on that front he should flourish against an Iceland unit that is not blessed with pace but relishes a physical confrontation. Look for him to wage a fierce battle in set-pieces.
The word on the Moscow streets is that Sergio Aguero has been preferred up front to Gonzalo Higuain and that may have something to do with an aging Icelend defence.
Kari Arnason has had many fine moments in an Iceland jersey – not least keeping Cristiano Ronaldo shtum in the group-stage draw with Portugal at Euro 2016.
The 35-year-old may well have a few memorable performances left in him yet, but a fit-again Aguero could give his ankles some worry if he’s having to contend with the quicksilver Messi at the same time.
Watch out for him up the other end of the pitch, too – he scored twice in the qualification stage and most recently in a friendly draw with Ghana.