Moscow: Lionel Messi’s Argentina aim to put a shambolic World Cup build-up behind them and make a statement in their opening match Saturday against tournament debutants Iceland.
The two-time champions arrived in Russia dogged by poor form, injuries and controversy. But Messi is a man on a mission as he chases his first World Cup winner’s medal and will not tolerate complacency against the minnows at the Spartak stadium here.
“Iceland showed they could compete with anyone at the last Euros,” he said Friday, referring to their giant-killing run at the 2016 European Championships 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.
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 island nation of 3,30,000 that is the smallest country to ever reach the finals.
- Argentina are 5th in FIFA rankings, Iceland 22nd
- Argentina have lost both their build-up games 2-4 to Nigeria, 1-6 to Spain
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.”
Argentina reserve goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman said the squad would do everything in their power to give Messi the success he craves but they are expecting a tight match against Iceland.
“We must show patience and move the ball around to try and find space, and look to get in behind defenders 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.”
Argentina only made it to Russia courtesy of a Messi hat-trick in their final qualifier against Ecuador