When Messi stepped to the penalty spot in the 64th minute, he had the opportunity to re-establish the lead against Iceland in the opening game of Group D. The spot kick though was slightly weak and at a comfortable height, as Icelandic veteran goalkeeper Halldorsson duly saved the penalty.
While Ronaldo had shone in the diverting 3-3 draw with Spain in Portugal’s Group B fixture, equalising in the final minutes with a sumptuous free kick, Messi had buckled under the pressure. But would it be right to make every performance a referendum on the best player in the world? Football is a team sport after all, and there is only so much outstanding individuals can do to lift mediocre teams.
The team aspect of the game was in sharp relief in the Argentina vs Iceland game. Argentina who started with Mezo instead of Dybala and went for the solidity of Biglia and Mascherano, looked sterile from the get go. Even though Aguero scored to give Argentina the lead, it was apparent that all moves went through Messi.
A consistent thread in the first half was Messi moving deep near the centre circle to receive the ball from Mascherano and Biglia. The only forward momentum came from the centre back Otamendi who made a couple of driving runs into the opposition half. Iceland on the contrary worked with a simple yet highly effective plan. Their wingback, especially Magnusson were superb while the midfield duo of Hallfredsson and Gunnarsson were constantly hustling Messi. Centre backs Ragnar Sigurdsson and Arnason were excellent with their backs to the wall approach as they put their bodies on the line, blocking numerous shots. The defensive discipline of Iceland gave freedom to playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson to find pockets of space, while Finnbogason the striker was relentless in his work rate giving Rojo a run for his money.
In the hype of the penalty miss, it might be lost that it was Messi who was instrumental in earning that spotkick. It was also him who constantly strove for the ball, and took shots from distance. Argentina looked a much threatening side with the introduction of Banega. He gave thrust and flexibility to attacking manoeuvres and also took a close range shot which was expertly parried by Halldorsson.Gauging by the reactions from Argentinians here in Moscow, for Messi to cement his stature in the country’s folklore – he would have to be standing at the Luzhniki in less than a month with the FIFA World Cup trophy aloft – for that to happen though he needs to assemble himself and gather his teammates after what was surely a messed opportunity.