The Group D opener here in Russia featuring Argentina and Iceland was one of the first games to be sold out in the World Cup. The prospect of watching Lionel Messi in his last World Cup would have surely influenced the saturated demand but the Icelandic team is not your typical minnow either. Coach Heimir Hallgrímsson’s boys surprised opponents and fans alike with their cheerful crowd and backs to the walls defending in the 2016 European championships, and enter this tournament with an enhanced pedigree.
Their first time opponents - Argentina meanwhile enter the tournament under extreme pressure. It was Messi who inspired the La Albiceleste to a 3-1 win in their must win CONMEBOL qualifier against Ecuador but recent performances have not been anywhere close to impressive. Especially chastening was a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Spain. Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentina manager known for heavy pressing and attacking play will have to toe the fine line between maximising the attacking talent at his disposal and bringing a defensive solidity. The midfield continues to be a key problem area for them especially with the ageing of stalwart, Mascherano and injury of the versatile Manuel Lanzini as Sampaoli might contemplate starting with a 3 man defence. Another challenge for Argentina would be the choice of forward line with the likes of Higuain, Aguero, Di Maria and Dybala competing for limited positions in the starting eleven. The loss of veteran goalie Romero will compound the uncertainty too.
Iceland on the contrary paint a picture of continuity. Carrying forward the momentum of the Euros from 2016, they qualified for the World Cup in first place over Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Hallgrimsson has been working as an assistant manager since 2013, and took over the reigns two years ago. Many of the stars of the 2016 campaign return such as the goalkeeper Halldorsson, central defenders Ragnar Sigurdsson and Arnason, captain and midfield heartbeat, Aron Gunnarsson, wingers Bjarnson and Gudmundsson alongside star playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson. Iceland will aim to maintain defensive solidity and midfield shape and look to create scoring opportunities through the wings and set pieces.
An organised Iceland could pose problems to the defensively porous Argentina and cause one of the major upsets of the World Cup.
Player to watch Argentina: The injury to Lanzini has opened a spot for the young Juventus striker in the starting eleven and he will be eager to grab this opportunity with both hands. He might start on the right wing, but his ability to cut in and score from distance with his deadly left foot may prove to be the beginning of a deadly partnership between him and Messi. His pacy dribbling skills would create space for the 5 time Ballon d’Or winner and could be the catalyst for a great start to the World Cup in a tough group. Paulo Dybala- Iceland: Finnbogason was a figure of mockery in his stint with Real Sociedad, but moving to Augsburg, firstly on loan and later permanently has brought a revival in fortunes. He shone in the 2017-18 Bundesliga season, bouncing from an injury hit season to score 12 goals with the highlight being a hattrick against Freiburg, with 2 goals in extra time to draw the game. A mobile and powerful striker in the air, he, would be the perfect spearhead for a team which thrives on crossing the ball and set piece deliveries. If he applies the finishing touch to deliveries from the likes of Sigurdsson, Bjarnason, and Gudmundsson, the Alfred Finnbogason- Strákarnir okkar, as they are fondly referred to as, can dream of qualifying for the play off’s. Predicted lineups Argentina:1-4-2-3-1
Caballero- Mercado, Fazio, Otamendi, Tagliafico- Biglia, Banega- Dybala, Messi, Di Maria- Higuain
Haldorsson- Saevarsson, Arnason, Sigurdsson, Magnusson- Gunnarsson, Hallfredsson- Gudmundsson, Sigurdsson, Bjarnason- Finnbogason
Aniket Mishra is a freelance writer who will cover the Fifa World Cup for CNBC-TV18.com Catch our entire Fifa World Cup coverage