Football: Lionel Messi messes up for Argentina as Iceland roars in 1-1 draw

Lionel Messi of Argentina reacts after the Fifa World Cup 2018 group D preliminary round football match between Argentina and Iceland. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Argentina's Lionel Messi looking dejected after the World Cup match with Iceland at the Spartak Stadium, on June 12, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS
Argentina's Lionel Messi reacts after his penalty was saved during the World Cup Group D match against Iceland at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on June 16, 2018. PHOTO: AFP
Lionel Messi's weak effort from the spot was saved by goalkeeper Hannes Por Halldorsson. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Lionel Messi never found his mojo in the 1-1 draw against Iceland, even missing a 64th-minute penalty which could have been the winning goal. PHOTO: REUTERS
Argentina's Lionel Messi taking a penalty against Iceland, which he eventually missed. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW - In the warm-up 15 minutes before kick-off, the signs were already there that Lionel Messi was going to struggle at the Spartak Stadium.

His left foot, normally so accurate with a ball, was misfiring. One free kick completely missed the goal, instead hitting this reporter, who was pitchside courtesy of the Vivo Super Fan photographer programme. Vivo is the official smartphone sponsor of the 2018 World Cup.

The Argentinian never found his mojo in the 1-1 draw against Iceland on Saturday (June 17), even missing a 64th-minute penalty which could have been the winning goal. Instead, Hannes Halldorsson comfortably saved to his right as the smallest country at this Cup earned a massive point.

"I hope it is going to prove important to us to reach our goal to qualify," Halldorsson said of his heroics.

"I did my homework, I looked at a lot of penalties by Messi (who has missed four of the last seven spot kicks he has taken for Barcelona and Argentina), and I also looked at how I had been behaving in previous penalties, so I tried to get into their mindset, how they would be thinking about me."

Less than 24 hours earlier, Messi's rival Cristiano Ronaldo had laid down a marker, both with his hat-trick as well as his chin-stroking celebration, seen as a challenge to the ginger-bearded Messi.

Team-mate Sergio Aguero said afterwards: "Leo showed he's human. We support him. He just had a bad day but we know that he can give us the victory at any moment of the game. I hope he can be better for next match against Croatia."

The 30-year-old Messi could not be faulted for a lack of trying. He took 11 shots against the Icelanders, seven more than Ronaldo had against Spain.

But his crosshairs were misaligned. Free kicks were hit into the defensive wall or high into the stands, while Messi mostly ran into dead ends amid Iceland's two strong and organised banks of four.

Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli also has to take part of the blame for the poor result. It is normal to build his team around Messi but where he failed was to not have a Plan B after deciding to drop last season's Serie A joint-top scorer Mauro Icardi.

Yet La Albiceleste, playing in all-black, started brightly and took the lead in the 19th minute thanks to Aguero's sharp turn and classy finish.

But Iceland, inspired by their "thunderclapping" fans and showing the same self-belief that carried them to the 2016 Euro quarter-finals, equalised four minutes later through Alfred Finnbogason.

They were content to concede 78 per cent possession while their defenders smartly cut off the angles of Maximilian Meza and Angel di Maria, who were anonymous as Messi began dropping deeper from his No. 10 role.

A tame free kick in the final moments of the game that was deflected off the Iceland wall summed up Messi, and Argentina's day, and they will have to improve drastically in their next two Group D games against Croatia (June 22) and Nigeria (June 27).

Sampaoli said: "We need to find more variety of options going forward. It's a very competitive group.

"The circumstances around the missed penalty and that led to Leo's mistake, that's just another statistic, it's part of the past... We need to be strong as a group, believe in ourselves and know we have all the tools to beat anybody."

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