Sports Mole previews the 2018 World Cup action as Argentina and Iceland get their campaigns underway in Group D at the Otkritie Arena in Moscow.
Argentina get their 2018 World Cup campaign underway in Group D as they come up against Heimir Hallgrimsson‘s Iceland, who are making their debut in the tournament.
Jorge Sampaoli and his charges will be hoping to kickstart a positive run after finishing as runners up four years ago in Brazil, although La Albiceleste have much to work on after a lacklustre qualification process.
Runners up at the 2014 edition in Brazil, Argentina could not have produced a less convincing passage through qualification for this summer’s tournament in Russia.
Stumbling throughout much of the South American qualifying section, Sampaoli’s side found themselves on the brink of missing out on reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1970 when they went behind against Ecuador in their final qualification contest.
Thankfully, and as one would often come to expect, Lionel Messi produced the goods at testing altitude as the Barcelona star bagged a hat-trick to see Argentina come from behind to win 3-1 and claim a spot in Russia right at the death.
Messi’s heroics effectively proved one of few moments of quality throughout a testing qualification process that saw Argentina score just 19 times in 18 games.
Sampaoli’s reliance on Messi was perhaps highlighted in two problematic friendly losses when they were beaten 4-2 by Nigeria during a friendly in November 2017, while back in March of this year La Albiceleste were hammered 6-1 by Spain in Madrid, with the Barcelona forward sitting out both games.
Qualification woes aside, Argentina will be looking to Sampaoli to now deliver when it matters most at tournament level. The 58-year-old coach has already proven to be effective when guiding Chile past Argentina on penalties in the Copa America in 2017.
The two-time winners of the World Cup head to Russia knowing that the pressure is on to top a group that also includes Croatia and Nigeria alongside Iceland. The draw has been fairly kind to La Albiceleste and should they top the group they will also likely land another favourable contest against Peru in the last 16.
Argentina’s preparations for the tournament ended with a frustrating hiccup when a friendly against Israel was cancelled for political reasons, leaving Sampaoli and company heading into a potentially testing encounter against Iceland having played just one friendly game against Haiti since losing to Spain back in March.
Recent form (all competitions): DDWWLW
Saturday afternoon will prove a watershed moment in the history of Icelandic football, as the country makes its debut at the World Cup.
Iceland are the smallest nation by populous to reach the tournament and will be hoping to build from a remarkable Euro 2016 campaign that saw Lars Lagerback and Hallgrimsson’s charges eliminate England at the tournament in France.
The road to the World Cup provided Iceland with a challenging route as they had to take on the likes of fellow Group D rivals Croatia, as well as Ukraine and Turkey, but Hallgrimsson’s charges eventually made it over the line by finishing top of the group by two points.
During that process Iceland put together seven victories across 10 games in order to edge beyond Croatia into the only automatic qualification berth in the group. Outings against the Vatreni saw Iceland both win and lose against Croatia in qualifying for Russia.
The country’s preparations since qualification have been less encouraging, however, given that Iceland have not been able to find themselves a victory in a range of six varying friendlies – some FIFA-sanctioned, some not – since booking a place on the plane.
This year Iceland have lost to Mexico, Peru and Norway and blew a two-goal lead against Ghana in Reykjavik to draw 2-2 against James Kwesi Appiah‘s men.
Hallgrimsson now finds himself in sole control following the departure of Lagerback and the coach will likely be relying on the experiences of both Aron Gunnarsson and Gylfi Sigurdsson when competing in a group that could provide Strakarnir okkar with an outside chance of reaching the knockouts.
It has taken Iceland 13 attempts to qualify for the World Cup and the group-stage draw has been fairly kind to Hallgrimsson’s men. Securing a positive point against an underperforming Argentina would setup Iceland intriguingly for more winnable battles against Croatia and Nigeria.
Recent form (all competitions): WWLLLD
Key man Messi will start in the hole just behind lone frontman Sergio Aguero, while Angel Di Maria and Maximiliano Meza are expected to start out wide in attacking positions for Argentina.
Sampaoli should opt for a 4-2-3-1 that sees both Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia sitting as central pivots in midfield, allowing full-backs Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Tagliafico to get forward when required.
Given Manchester United stopper Sergio Romero‘s absence from the tournament, Chelsea goalkeeper Willy Caballero should start in goal, leaving Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo as the centre-backs in front of him.
For the debutants, Hallgrimsson may decide upon a slightly more compact 4-4-1-1 formation that allows Sigurdsson a free creative role just behind striker Alfred Finnbogason.
Iceland’s four in midfield should see Burnley’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson out on the right and Aston Villa’s Birkir Bjarnason on the left, allowing Emil Hallfredsson and Gunnarsson to occupy the middle.
Argentina possible starting lineup:
Caballero; Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Biglia, Mascherano; Meza, Messi, Di Maria; Aguero
Iceland possible starting lineup:
Halldorsson; Saevarsson, Ingason, Sigurdsson, Magnusson; Gudmundsson, Gunnarsson, Hallfredsson, Bjarnason; Sigurdsson; Finnbogason
Head To Head
The Group D clash represents the first meeting between the two nations at international level.
Argentina have won the Jules Rimet on two occasions, once on home soil in 1978, before winning the tournament again thanks to some standout showings from Diego Maradona in 1986, much to the chagrin of many England fans.
We say: Argentina 2-1 Iceland
La Albiceleste travel to the Otkritie Arena with plenty to prove after a testing qualification phase. Group D does not represent the most straightforward of tasks either as both Croatia and Nigeria will fancy themselves to provide stern tests alongside Iceland.
The likes of Aguero, Di Maria and Paulo Dybala will all be keen to demonstrate that this Argentina side is not a one-man team and that the country does have a future beyond Messi when he finally decides to hang up his international boots.
Iceland enter the World Cup for the first time and will feel that the tournament is there to be enjoyed, much like their showings at Euro 2016 demonstrated. Should they be able to take something away from Moscow, Hallgrimsson’s men might just believe that a second-place finish is not completely beyond them.