Nervy Argentina seek Messi magic against Iceland
MOSCOW – Agence France-Presse
The two-time champion arrived in Russia dogged by poor form, injuries and controversy.
“Iceland showed they could compete with anyone at the last Euros,” he said, referring to the island nation’s giant-killing run at the 2016 European Championship in France.
Despite his achievements with Barcelona, the five-time world player of the year is yet to win a major international tournament and time is running out as his 31st birthday looms.
He briefly retired from international football after the 2016 Copa America and has hinted he will do so permanently if the campaign in Russia ends in failure.
The Group D clash pits an Argentine side that critics say is too focused on superstar Messi against a band of grafters who pride themselves on teamwork.
On paper, the South Americans should have little trouble disposing of Iceland, an country of 330,000 people that is the smallest country to ever reach the finals.
But the Icelanders revel in their underdog status and showed at Euro 2016 they will not be cowed on the big stage.
Spurred on by their fans’ thunderous “Viking clap,” they earned a 1-1 draw with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal then famously dumped out England to reach the quarterfinals.
“We kept Ronaldo quite quiet so hopefully we can do the same against Messi,” said Burnley winger Johann Berg Gudmundsson.
“We know we’re probably going to be defending for a lot of the time and obviously he’s one of the best players in the world and he can turn it on.”
“We must show patience and move the ball around to try and find space, and look to get in behind with speed,” said Guzman, who plays for Mexican club Tigres.
“It will be a very tight game in which we’ll also have to control our nerves.”
Subsequent friendlies have given cause for concern -- there was a 4-2 loss to Nigeria in November and a 6-1 humiliation by Spain in March, although Messi did not play in either match.
Argentina’s final warm-up against Israel in Jerusalem was canceled after protests from Palestinians, miring the team in controversy and leaving players short of match practice.
To further compound the team’s problems, goalkeeper Sergio Romero and midfielder Manuel Lanzini both fell victim to late injuries.
Accusing Argentina of over-reliance on Messi may seem unfair to a team boasting the sharp attacking talents of Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain but it is a view coach Jorge Sampaoli himself has expressed.
“He can carry the team on his shoulders,” Sampaoli said of the player who scored 45 goals in 54 games for Barcelona this season.
“This is going to be his team.”