By Mitch Phillips
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Tiny Iceland made a stunning impact in their first-ever World Cup on Saturday when they held 2014 runners-up Argentina to a pulsating 1-1 draw but Lionel Messi’s tournament began wretchedly as he saw his penalty saved by Hannes Halldorsson.
Sergio Aguero gave the two-time world champions the lead after 19 minutes before Iceland, showing the same commitment and self-belief that saw them stun the soccer world with their run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, hit back four minutes later through Alfred Finnbogason.
Argentina, playing in all-black and roared on by the vast majority of the crowd in a rocking Spartak Stadium, eventually took command, delivering wave after wave of attacks in the second half.
Yet they actually created few clear chances either side of the poorly-struck 64th-minute penalty by Messi, who drew a blank despite a remarkable 11 shots during the match.
Iceland, by far the smallest country by population to appear at a World Cup and inspired by their “thunderclapping” fans, ran and battled tirelessly as they wrote another unlikely chapter in their short but glorious major tournament history.
“People say we celebrate when we won a point — wait and see how we celebrate when we’ve won a game,” said Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson.
Man of the match Halldorsson said he had done his homework on Messi, who has now missed four of his last seven penalties for club and country.
“I looked at a lot of penalties by Messi and I also looked at how I had been behaving in previous penalties, so I tried to get into their mindset, how they would be thinking about me,” he said.
Frustrated Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli tried to remain upbeat. “We need to be strong as a group, believe in ourselves and know we have all the tools to beat anybody,” he said.
Iceland signaled their intent from the kick off, sending seven men charging into the box to challenge as the ball was pumped long, leading to just the first of several uncomfortable moments for a decidedly shaky Argentine defense.
The South Americans looked more assured in attack, though, and went ahead when Aguero turned tightly in the box and smashed in an unstoppable shot.
Iceland stunned the stadium soon afterwards though when keeper Willy Caballero palmed Gylfi Sigurdsson’s low shot straight into the path of Finnbogason, who swept the ball into the unguarded net.
After Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick in Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain on Friday, all eyes were on Messi to respond but he was generally kept at arm’s length by the rugged but controlled Iceland defenders.
The great man was given the ultimate opportunity after Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson got entangled with Aguero in the box, only for Halldorsson to fly to his right and palm his mediocre strike clear.
Iceland then defended superbly, almost fanatically, with Halldorson making another fantastic full-length save from substitute Cristian Pavon in the dying moments.
Iceland’s players rushed to the stands to share their celebrations with their fans and now will have real belief that they can get out of Group D that also contains Croatia and Nigeria, who meet later on Saturday.
“This match was a kind of a milestone for this team,” said Hallgrimsson, who vowed pre-tournament that his team would not sit back.
“We are bluntly honest in our ability. With a team like Argentina it is just a fact they have players with superior skills.
“I think for everyone it is more enjoyable to play this way and achieve something than to play in a different way and not achieve anything.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge and Ian Chadband)