Argentina v Iceland: Lionel Messi enters last chance saloon

Messi starts World Cup 2018 campaign against the smallest nation in the tournament.

Lionel Messi at a training session for Argentina.   -  Getty Images

Iceland's first experience of a World Cup comes against an all-time great perhaps facing his last chance to win one as it takes on Argentina and Lionel Messi in its Group D opener. 

Many believe Barcelona superstar Messi needs to win the World Cup to rubber stamp his status as the best player in the history of the game. He came agonisingly close in the 2014 World Cup, where he won player of the tournament but was unable to prevent Argentina from losing 1-0 to Germany in extra time in the final.

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With goalkeeper Sergio Romero and forward Manuel Lanzini missing the competition through injury, the strain on the 30-year-old Messi's shoulders has arguably increased even further.

 

Messi is not the only worldwide sensation set to be on show in Saturday's clash at Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Iceland having captured the hearts and minds of football fans around the globe during its improbable run to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016.

Iceland's remarkable major tournament debut popularised the 'Viking clap' and coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, now in sole charge having overseen its European Championship run alongside Lars Largerback, is confident it can repeat those heroics on the world stage.

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Slovakia was the last debutant to qualify and reach the knockout stages in 2010, and Hallgrimsson sees a path to Iceland doing the same despite being drawn in a group that also contains a talented Croatia side and Nigeria.

"If people still think it's a kind of Cinderella story, and that in some way we don’t deserve it, then they underestimate us," Hallgrimsson told The Guardian. "The group is equal and I think that's in our favour. If or when — I don't know which word to use — we get through there's not going to be any opponent much tougher than Argentina, Nigeria or Croatia.

"It gives you the feeling that, if we qualify for the last 16, we shouldn't fear anyone."




KEY OPTA STATS:

- Argentina has gone past the first round in 11 of its last 12 World Cup appearances, the only exception coming in 2002. In fact, it has won 12 of its last 15 group games at the World Cup (D2 L1), its only defeat in that run coming against England in 2002 (0-1).

- Argentina has also topped its group in each of the last three World Cups. It has also won its opening game in each of the last six editions.

- Only Bolivia (18) scored fewer goals than Argentina (19) in the CONMEBOL qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.

- Iceland has qualified for its first World Cup and its second major tournament after Euro 2016 where it reached the quarterfinals. Slovakia was the last World Cup debutant to make it to the knockout stages of the tournament (2010).

- At 334,000 inhabitants when it qualified, Iceland is the smallest ever nation to reach the World Cup finals.

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