Argentina 1-1 Iceland
Lionel Messi missed a penalty as Iceland grabbed a deserved draw with two-time World Cup winners Argentina.
Sergio Aguero’s opener was cancelled out by Alfred Finnbogason’s predatory finish before half-time as the smallest nation ever to qualify for the tournament made a stirring debut on football’s biggest stage.
Hannes Halldorsson joined Finnbogason in the country’s footballing folklore by thwarting Messi from the penalty spot in the second half to preserve a memorable point.
Iceland’s fans provided a raucous pre-match build-up in Moscow, singing “Eg er kommin heim” (“I have arrived”) and finishing with their trademark Viking clap, and Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson took their first shot within 10 seconds.
Argentina, not short of support themselves, then kept the ball for the next five minutes and the game had immediately found its rhythm and shape.
As promised by coach Jorge Sampaoli, Lionel Messi went where he pleased, darting and probing, while Iceland did what their manager Heimir Hallgrimsson pledged, no man-marking assignment on the mini maestro, just gang-tackling.
Despite the one-sided possession statistics the sides traded near misses, with Aston Villa’s Birkir Bjarnason having the best of them when he dragged a shot just wide.
It came after some horribly slack play from Argentina and was the type of squandered chance teams so often live to regret.
So it seemed when Aguero, with his back to goal on the penalty spot, stopped a hopeful Marcos Rojo daisy-cutter with one touch and swivelled to smash a left-footed drive into the top corner.
It was the type of finish Manchester City fans have seen many, many times and reminded everyone inside the Spartak Stadium that he is one of the best strikers in the world.
But all week Iceland have been telling people their Euro 2016 win over England was not a miracle, their group-topping qualification was not a shock and their place here is entirely in keeping with their FIFA ranking.
They backed up those claims when Sigurdsson’s cross created panic, Hordur Magnusson picked up the loose ball on the right and fired it hard and low towards Caballero’s goal.
The Chelsea goalkeeper dived bravely at the feet of several onrushing players but could only palm it to Iceland’s lone striker Finnbogason, who calmly volleyed home. Barely a quarter of the way through, the game was already shaping up as a classic.
The rest of the half continued in this vein. Messi was menacing, Iceland unbending. They could even have taken a half-time lead when Caballero saved well from Gylfi Sigurdsson’s low shot, only for the Everton man to volley wide from the edge of the box a minute later.
As so often after a breathless first 45, the second half started slowly. But on 62 minutes Messi found himself in space on the left and spotted Maximiliano Meza charging into the area.
Magnusson, who only had eyes for the ball, was ruled to have bundled Meza to the floor. Surely this was Messi’s moment.
Halldorsson, a part-time film director, had his own script in mind and the Randers FC keeper flung himself to his right and made his mark on World Cup history.
Messi was not finished, though. A wave of his left foot sent the ball whistling just wide with 10 minutes left and then in stoppage time he went right and flashed a shot past the other post.
Argentina can feel aggrieved with the referee after Cristian Pavon was fouled in Iceland’s penalty area. There was clear contact but the referee awarded a free out. Questions will be asked as to why the video assistant referee wasn’t used in such a case and why if he felt Pavon dived he didn’t issue a yellow card.
By this stage, Iceland were massed in their defensive third, with Udinese midfielder Emil Hallfredsson magnificent in the destroyer role and the other Sigurdsson, Ragnar, a rock at the back.
When the final whistle blew that Icelandic volcano in the corner of the stadium erupted: they have arrived.
Argentina take on Croatia at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Thursday evening, while Iceland face Nigeria at the Volgograd Arena on Friday afternoon.
Man of the Match – Hannes Halldorsson (Iceland)
- Ever Banega replaces Lucas Biglia 54 mins
- Cristian Pavon replaces Angel Di Maria 75 mins
- Gonzalo Higuain replaces Maximiliano Meza 84 mins
- Rurik Gislason replaces Johann Berg Gudmundsson 63 mins
- Ari Skulason replaces Aron Gunnarsson 76 mins
- Bjoern Sigurdarson replaces Alfred Finnbogason 89 mins
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Poland)