Argentina v Iceland: Messi enters last chance saloon as minnows make their bow
Lionel Messi starts perhaps his last World Cup campaign against the smallest nation in the tournament, as Iceland make their bow.
Iceland's first experience of a World Cup comes against an all-time great perhaps facing his last chance to win one as they take on Argentina and Lionel Messi in their Group D opener.
Many believe Barcelona superstar Messi needs to win the World Cup to rubber stamp his status as the best player in the history of the game.
He came agonisingly close in the 2014 World Cup, where he won player of the tournament but was unable to prevent Argentina from losing 1-0 to Germany in extra time in the final.
With goalkeeper Sergio Romero and forward Manuel Lanzini missing the competition through injury, the strain on the 30-year-old Messi's shoulders has arguably increased even further.
Messi is not the only worldwide sensation set to be on show in Saturday's clash at Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Iceland having captured the hearts and minds of football fans around the globe during their improbable run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
Iceland's remarkable major tournament debut popularised the 'Viking clap' and coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, now in sole charge having overseen their European Championship run alongside Lars Largerback, is confident they can repeat those heroics on the world stage.
Slovakia were the last debutants to qualify and reach the knockout stages in 2010, and Hallgrimsson sees a path to Iceland doing the same despite being drawn in a group that also contains a talented Croatia side and Nigeria.
"If people still think it's a kind of Cinderella story, and that in some way we don’t deserve it, then they underestimate us," Hallgrimsson told The Guardian.
"The group is equal and I think that's in our favour. If or when – I don't know which word to use – we get through there's not going to be any opponent much tougher than Argentina, Nigeria or Croatia.
"It gives you the feeling that, if we qualify for the last 16, we shouldn't fear anyone."
Argentina – Maximiliano Meza
Meza, who only has two caps to his name, is expected to be named on the opposite wing to Angel Di Maria and will be tasked with providing width as Messi occupies a more central role in Lanzini's absence. He will be under immediate pressure to perform and could quickly lose his place if he fails to do so.
Iceland – Johann Berg Gudmundsson
There will be plenty of attention on Gylfi Sigurdsson, but Gudmundsson is likely to be just as important to Iceland's hopes of replicating their 2016 heroics. Blessed with an impressive left foot and coming off an eight-assist season with Burnley, he will hope to provide a creative spark for Hallgrimsson's men.
KEY OPTA STATS:
- Argentina have gone past the first round in 11 of their last 12 World Cup appearances, the only exception coming in 2002. In fact, they have won 12 of their last 15 group games at the World Cup (D2 L1), their only defeat in that run coming against England in 2002 (0-1).
- Argentina have also topped their group in each of the last three World Cups. They have also won their opening game in each of the last six editions.
- Only Bolivia (18) scored fewer goals than Argentina (19) in the CONMEBOL qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
- Iceland have qualified for their first World Cup and their second major tournament after Euro 2016 where they reached the quarter-finals. Slovakia were the last World Cup debutants to make it to the knockout stages of the tournament (2010).
- At 334,000 inhabitants when they qualified, Iceland are the smallest ever nation to reach the World Cup finals.