FIFA World Cup 2018: Argentina's draw against resolute Iceland exposes their lack of imagination and impetus

“It’s difficult for me to explain what just happened,” said a pale Hernan Crespo sitting in an American studio. The former Argentine striker was wearing the expression of bemusement that was now painted across the faces of his countrymen who have seen or heard about the 1-1- result versus Iceland.

Argentina's Lionel Messi in action against Iceland. AFP

Argentina's Lionel Messi in action against Iceland. AFP

Outside the stadium, before the game, the optimism was palpable with many Argentine couples getting hitched on the day of their country's tournament-opener. But after the match and inside the Spartak stadium, Diego Maradona, who was watching from the Spraktak stands with his Ray Bans, black t-shirt and Cuban cigar, tired his best to ignore weight of familiarity settling in on his chest like an oncoming cough that leaves one tearful.

As time goes on and pages written about this match yellows, an illusion of equality will be cast over the result — and this will be a testament to the fact that not all draws are between equals.

Hands of Hal

In a country of 3,48,580, some people have to do two jobs. Hannes Halldorsson (or Hal) is one such man of many responsibilities. As a movie director he is responsible for sending Iceland’s entry to Eurovision singing competition every year. He is also the Iceland national team goalkeeper who was tasked to (successfully) parry Lionel Messi’s frisbee-like penalty. The hands of Hal made six game-changing saves.

Iceland is a remarkable football story. For context, Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina is 45 times bigger. This crudely means Argentina has more probability of producing a good footballer. In contrast, if Alfreð Finnbogason was too adventurous playing football in his his native Iceland, he might have fallen off the face of the earth and into the Norwegian sea.

In Iceland’s team, whose players all share the same dentist (who is also incidentally their manager) and know each other’s pet dogs and cats by their names, there was the strength of unity, if not mercurial vapors and multi-million dollar royalty bonuses. And historically, the Norse Gods and football Gods value that character.

In a squad of 23, only four ply their trade in the top four leagues in Europe: yet the short-pant, track-jacket, Nike Air-wearing manager-cum-dentist, Hallgrimsson, looked as fussed as a marine iguana sitting on a rock face. Argentina attacked in waves, but Iceland, with the fortitude that a clear game-plans brings, stood chin and chest out, rebuffing some of the best players in the world. Messi, usually the centre of the maelstrom for Barcelona, was choked of air. “We never gave them the runaway to take off,” said the ice cool manager after the game.

The culture of the high-pressing style comes naturally to a culture known for the buccaneering Vikings. This produced errors in Argentina’s fortifications and gave Iceland their best chances.

Willy Caballero was called into action as early as the ninth minute. Argentina’s left defender was pressed into making a squared pass to the goalkeeper, which was picked off and should have been slotted away by Birkir Bjarnason — a man with notorious energy of a Jean Claude Van Damme villain, and a look fit for a Van Halen concert.

Argentina’s left flank was a particular point of interest in Iceland’s siege. Bjarnason’s early crosses and turnover of possession laid the planks for his teammates to cross over and revel in the confusion of headers, limbs, half-clearances, and second balls. One such move constituting of the aforementioned features allowed Alfreð Finnbogason to punch through Argentina’s defence in the 23rd minute.

Unable to contend with the physicality of a packed centre, as the game progressed, Argentina were increasingly made to stitch moves in the wider areas, trying to compete with guile and pace instead. Sergio Aguero’s goal on the 19th minute was a result of a scuffed Rojo long shot from wide left finding the way to Aguero’s right foot in the box. Pawing the ball across with his left foot, he made space to swivel and shoot into the top corner. The goal lit Argentina’s game up, albeit only momentarily.

In a game peppered with penalty shouts, faulty free-kicks, mismatched headers, handball appeals, perhaps the most telling tale was that each of the three best chances manufactured by Argentina were created by defenders and defensive midfielders.

Looking for Riquelme

Javier Mascherano’s enterprising long ball to Messi on the 77th minute was almost a tip-of-the-hat to Bergkamp’s famous goal against Argentina. In this case, Messi couldn’t get the ball to come down quick enough to get a shot away.

On the day, Mascherano played more passes than the entire Iceland team put together. This tells us two things: Iceland set up so that the defensive midfielder gets most of the ball and that Argentina desperately needed to find a Juan Roman Riquelme or an Andres Iniesta to thread the passes through, and take the attention and defenders away from Lionel Messi.

Meza and Co were repeatedly trying to play to Messi even when the number ten was marked by two men and no pass was on.

This was not an isolated incident. On the 29th minute, Messi was seen pinging a crossfield pass forty-yard ahead to left-back Tagliafico. On the 33rd minute Otamendi tried a hopeful long-punt at goal which eventually rose closer to the upper tier than the top corner. On the 32 minutes, Messi expected the ball to be played onto his feet in an one-two move, and verbally bruised the errant Lucas Biglia for taking a shot on instead. It was not surprising then, that Messi took nine shots and it was Aguero who scored his first goal in a World Cup.

If Argentina are to go far in this tournament, Messi will have to trust his team and his team has to trust themselves and their spirit of attacking football. And a way of doing that for Jorge Sampaoli would be to put faith in the erratic Ever Banega, Dybala, the gifted Giovani Lo Celso, the adventurous Ansaldi, and all the six-foot-five-inches of Fed Fazio. But until then, lacking impetus and imagination, this Argentina team are as pale and blue as their original kits.

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Updated Date: Jun 17, 2018 12:02 PM

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