Lionel Messi missed a second half penalty as Argentina were held to a frustrating 1-1 draw by Iceland in their World Cup opener in Moscow on Saturday.
La Albiceleste after a torrid qualifying campaign and Lionel Messi after watching Cristiano Ronaldo plunder a hat-trick for Portugal the night before were eager to get off to a good start but were instead left to rue missed chances and two dropped points.
Iceland were exactly as expected after the success of their quarter final run in the European Championships two years ago – physical, organised and resolute.
But despite the European minnows forgoing possession, they were still able to give Argentina’s fragile defence problems. Birkir Bjarnason scuffed a glorious chance wide early on and soon after Argentina punished Iceland.
Sergio Agüero, preferred to Gonzalo Higuaín up front, received the ball into his feet and produced a superb turn and shot to put Argentina ahead. A first World Cup goal for the Manchester City striker and a performance that was one of the few positives for La Albiceleste.
The relief from Agüero’s opener was clear as Argentina’s dependence on Messi was still painfully clear but the lead lasted only minutes as Iceland capitalised on further ponderous defending.
A cross from the right had already panicked Argentina with Willy Caballero flapping and following a penalty box scramble Alfred Finnbogason eventually turned in from close range – Iceland’s first ever World Cup goal.
Argentina continued to struggle to break down a packed Iceland defence and although they improved slightly when Jorge Sampaoli introduced Ever Banega for Lucas Biglia, the best chance was a gift.
Hordur Magnusson clumsily tangled with Maxi Meza as the Independiente midfielder tried to latch onto Messi’s lofted pass and after referee Szymon Marciniak pointed to the spot, the stage was set for the Argentina number ten to restore the lead.
However, Messi’s effort was weak and goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson parried it to safety – Argentina have now missed their last two penalties taken at a World Cup (excluding shoot-outs), with Ariel Ortega missing against Sweden in 2002 when Marcelo Bielsa’s side suffered first round elimination.
Clear chances still failed to materialise but following the introduction of the impressive Cristian Pavón, Argentina should have been awarded a second penalty after the Boca Juniors winger was tripped by Birkir Saevarsson.
Marciniak waved away the appeals and Iceland held on for a historic point.
The draw was the first time since defeat to Cameroon in 1990 that Argentina have failed to win their opening game and now victory over Croatia on Thursday is vital.
Messi’s miss provided the obvious headline and the Argentina captain felt that burden: “The penalty was painful, I feel responsible,” Messi said.
“This is just beginning and we knew it would not be easy. It’s a bad fight because we deserved to win, we were superior to Iceland.
“We have things to improve, we’re going to beat Croatia.”
Messi remains the most important part of Jorge Sampaoli’s plans and Argentina need their captain at his best to progress in the tournament.
“To evaluate and characterise Lionel Messi’s work is difficult because it was an uncomfortable match for him,” Sampaoli told reporters.
“Iceland played very defensively, blocking all spaces but we did everything we could to win. Leo is very committed to Argentina.”
Croatia and Nigeria will certainly feel that they can expose the Argentina defence but there were lessons to learn for Sampaoli and against a side not so intent on sitting deep, Messi could find greater joy. Argentina prays for that.