The turmoil of qualification firmly in the past Argentina get their World Cup campaign underway on Saturday and while the Albiceleste and captain Lionel Messi feel the weight of expectation, Group D opponents Iceland bask in the spotlight of their first ever World Cup.
That is not to say that Iceland are there to make up the numbers and enjoy the experience. The smallest nation in World Cup history showed their worth during their debut run to the European Championship quarter-finals two years ago and having never faced Argentina, a new scalp is the target in Moscow.
With limited time in charge to implement ideas and a second warm-up game against Israel cancelled, Jorge Sampaoli has tried to maximise the time with his starting eleven and following several days with the same group of players, Argentina’s coach confirmed the team to face Iceland.
Most notably that will see Willy Caballero start in goal, Eduardo Salvio as the attacking right-back option, Marcos Rojo partnering Nicolás Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia forming a defensive, double five, Maxi Meza winning his place in midfield and Sergio Agüero piping Gonzalo Higuaín to the number nine spot.
“We have reached the point where the team is behind the idea, very well prepared and in this time we’ve managed to consolidate conceptually some of the things that we had lacked,” Sampaoli said in his press conference.
This is the longest that Sampaoli has had to work with his squad and while he has tried to change things up during qualification and the limited friendlies, it has been clear that Argentina lacked preparation under their current coach.
Many would question Sampaoli’s decision to go back to the pairing of Mascherano and Biglia in preference to a more creative passer like Giovani Lo Celso or Ever Banega in the middle particularly after both started in the 6-1 defeat to Spain in March but once more the theme of time came up.
“The idea is to protect the centre, that is why we’ve gone with Biglia and Mascherano,” Sampaoli explained.
“We think that the players who see a lot of the ball must also have certain organisational qualities and have the possibility of filtering balls between the lines. After working with the group, Biglia and Mascherano have these qualities.
“They have the defensive qualities required because with a full-back like [Eduardo] Salvio we need that defensive intelligence.
“Going with Gio [Lo Celso] or [Maxi] Meza in that position gave us a little more offensively but it modified the defensive structure and we didn’t have time to work on that.”
Meza retains a place in the starting eleven after Manuel Lanzini’s injury and Sampaoli was full of praise for the Independiente playmaker.
“Meza is the midfielder we have been looking for, he’s very versatile and allows us to recover balls. He is ready and while the football in Argentina might not elite level, he is just as good as the others in the squad.”
Federico Fazio had looked to be Nicolás Otamendi’s defensive partner after featuring regularly over the past year but Marcos Rojo has proved himself to Sampaoli over the past couple of weeks and has won a spot in the back four.
“Marcos has been a possibility from the beginning, he gives us many options. He hasn’t played a lot over the last three months [with Manchester United] but we decided he was ready.”
And likewise in goal, despite many calling for River Plate’s Franco Armani to be given a chance, veteran Willy Caballero keeps his place.
“Franco [Armani] had less time than Willy [Caballero] so despite the three goalkeepers being very equal, we chose him [Willy] for that,” Sampaoli explained, once more stressing the amount of time working with the team.
With Messi having dragged Argentina to Russia with his stunning hat-trick on the final day of qualifying in Quito, the Albiceleste have never been more dependent on their mercurial captain.
Messi will take centre stage in Sampaoli’s side and while that might bring certain pressure, the Argentina manager isn’t concerned.
“He’s very fit, well prepared and looking forward to this World Cup and he hopes to be able to achieve his dream. He’s a player who is very skilled so I don’t think he’s under pressure, he shouldn’t be under pressure, he is a player who makes people very happy with his game.
“I don’t think this should be Messi’s last World Cup. His skills and the way he plays mean that he will be the one who decides. He is a genius and he plays like a genius, I don’t think it will be his last.”
Sampaoli also praised Paulo Dybala’s efforts in training and while the Juventus forward won’t start, Dybala, Cristian Pavón and Giovani Lo Celso should all see some action later in the tournament.
“I think this is the right team to start the World Cup — but we might make changes later,” Sampaoli admitted.
The decision to name the starting eleven in the press conference a day before the game against Iceland drew some to accuse Argentina of underestimating the European minnows.
However, with the same eleven playing in training for six consecutive days it was hardly a secret.
“No, no, no, the reason why we have named our team in advance is because we knew since Wednesday what we wanted to do. I’ve told you today because we have trained with the starting XI and I don’t believe it’s necessary to hide this information,” Sampaoli responded.
“We’ve worked to see if we can limit their advantage in the air. I’m sure it’s going to be very, very tough because they are very tight and they can counter-attack. But we have been preparing for a long time.”
Iceland’s form since qualifying has been poor with recent defeats to Mexico, Peru and Norway and only one win in seven but Argentina would be foolish to expect other than the impressive side that shocked the European Championships.
After reaching the quarter finals in 2016, Heimir Hallgrimsson’s side topped their qualifying group above Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey, conceding only seven goals and they come to Russia looking for another shock driven on by their vocal support.
Iceland probable XI: Hannes Halldorsson; Birkir Már Saevarsson, Kari Arnason, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Ari Freyr Skulason; Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson, Emil Hallfredsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Birkir Bjarnason; Alfred Finnbogason, Bjorn Sigurdarson
Argentina have lost only one of their last seven World Cup group games against European opposition (won four, drew two) with that sole defeat coming against England in 2002 when La Albiceleste went out in the first round.
Saturday’s game will likely prove equally tough with Iceland sitting deep and starving Messi of space. Argentina will be looking to their captain for inspiration and if Sampaoli’s team are going to have any success in Russia it will once again be down to the world’s best player.