Compare the pair. On the one hand, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, goalkeeper for Iceland and Randers FC (second bottom in the Danish Superliga) and amateur filmmaker. On the other, Lionel Messi, arguably the best footballer in the world and star for Argentina and Spanish champions Barcelona. The disparity in their career CVs is so ridiculous that you wouldn’t foresee the two players ever meeting on a football field. In Moscow, at the World Cup, that meeting took place, and 64 minutes into Iceland’s maiden tournament appearance Messi stood at the penalty spot with only Halldórsson standing in his way. Iceland had fought hard, but it was inevitable that Messi would score to put Argentina ahead 2-1. Messi drilled his penalty to the left, into an almost unstoppable position. Halldórsson followed, flinging himself across goal to parry the ball out and keep the scores level. They remained level for the rest of the game.
It’s not like the South American giants were short of time on the ball, as their opponents invited them to knock the ball around in attack. Iceland’s team, made up of players from lower-level European clubs and coached by a part-time dentist, didn’t seem to care when they conceded a ridiculous amount of possession, or when Argentina played five times as many passes as they did. All they cared about was structure: their rigid 4-4-2 formation was held together with extraordinary discipline, and Argentinian attackers were flooded by defenders if they got into a position deemed too dangerous. Then they hit Argentina on the break, and looked infinitely more threatening against a spread out and structureless defensive unit. When Birkir Bjarnason received – and missed – a golden chance after one such break, it should have served as a warning to the South Americans.Embed from Getty Images
Hannes Þór Halldórsson saves Lionel Messi’s penalty at a key moment in the match. Halldórsson made a string of brilliant saves in a best-on-ground performance that allowed Iceland to get a draw.
Even still, Iceland’s attack wasn’t quite frequent enough to trouble their opposition, and when Argentina hit the front less than 20 minutes in, they could have been forgiven for thinking the hard work was done. It was Sergio Agüero who provided the goal with a classy turn and an unstoppable left foot shot into the top corner, showing the elegance, class and skill Iceland sorely lacked in comparison to their more highly-rated opposition. Yet anyone writing off Iceland missed one crucial detail: the Icelanders know how to fight, and fight they did.
The goal came less than five minutes later, courtesy of Alfreð Finnbogason. It was Iceland’s one true star, Gylfi Sigurðsson, who started it, gliding into the box and firing a powerful shot at Willy Caballero. That may have been all, had it not been for Bjarnason. With his long golden hair flapping around behind him, the physically imposing winger poked a foot in, and under duress the Argentinian keeper could only parry it out. It only went as far as Finnbogason, who had no problems stroking the ball into an open goal to send Iceland into raucous celebrations. With the deficit wiped out, Iceland could go back to their massed defence, and they continued their cycle of repelling all Argentina had to throw at them. The Argentinians had a lot to throw.
Ángel Di María attempted to bamboozle unspectacular right-back Birkir Már Sævarsson on the left wing. Sævarsson knew exactly where he needed to be, and remained completely unbamboozled. The rest of the defence was similarly solid. Open shooters were closed down, and referee Szymon Marciniak repeatedly turned down Argentinian appeals for penalties as Iceland’s defenders imposed themselves physically. With a different referee, Messi may well have had five or six chances from the spot. With Marciniak, he just had the one, emanating from a Horður Björgvin Magnússon shove on Maximiliano Meza.Embed from Getty Images
Lionel Messi shows his frustration during his poor individual performance. Messi had a penalty saved, and couldn’t find enough space to present a real danger.
Messi’s frustrating day came to represent the plight his teammates were in. He couldn’t get himself into dangerous positions, especially when eight or nine defenders seemed to be in the immediate vicinity every time he got near the box. Shots went slightly wide, and three free-kicks from scoring range failed to make their mark as Messi hit them either too high or too low. In the end, Messi had 11 shots. None of them made their way past Halldórsson, who was playing the game of his life.
By the end, Iceland’s counter-attacking threat was non-existent as their tired players did all they could to keep Argentina out. It didn’t make a difference, as Argentina’s one-dimensional attack couldn’t break through the mass of bodies blocking their path at every turn. Only Cristian Pavón was smart enough to use the space offered on the flanks, but his 20-minute cameo wasn’t enough. Fittingly, the last kick of the game went to Messi, who had a free kick in scoring range. He blasted the gettable free-kick straight into the Icelandic wall, before booting the ball into the air in frustration as the final whistle sounded. It was just that kind of day.
Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Argentina 1 (Agüero 19)
Iceland 1 (Finnbogason 23)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Pol)
Argentina (4-2-3-1): Caballero – Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Mascherano, Biglia (Banega 54); Meza (Higuaín 84), Messi, Di María (Pavón 75); Agüero.
Iceland (4-5-1): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Árnason, R Sigurðsson, Magnússon; Guðmundsson (Gíslason 63), Gunnarson (A Skúlason 76), G Sigurðsson, Hallfreðsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason (Sigurðarson 89).
1. Hannes Þór Halldórsson (Iceland)
When Messi stepped up to take a second-half penalty, Iceland seemed destined to go behind. It was not to be thanks to the brilliance of Halldórsson, who threw himself the right way and parried the penalty away harmlessly. It was undoubtedly the biggest save of his career, and was one of many memorable stops in a stunning World Cup debut.
2. Emil Hallfreðsson (Iceland)
Hallfreðsson was on top of his game in the middle of the park, cutting off plenty of attacks and working as hard as anyone on the field. He was one of the key players in curbing Messi’s impact on the game, and his fierce attack on the ball ensured he was a handy person to have around as Argentina looked to play their way through. His defensive performance was brilliant.
3. Sergio Agüero (Argentina)
Agüero managed to work his way into dangerous positions throughout, and his finish to give Argentina an early lead was top class. He made the tough left foot shot seem like child’s play, and he continued to be his side’s most dangerous attacker for the rest of the game. Like Messi, he found it tough against Iceland’s stoic defence, but he deserves credit for getting himself on the scoreboard.
4. Birkir Már Sævarsson (Iceland)
Sævarsson had a tough job marking Ángel Di María on Argentina’s left wing, but he performed so well that Di María was substituted so someone else could have a go. He never got beaten on the dribble, and his ability to stay between his opponent and the goals thwarted a large part of Di María’s game and ensured Iceland weren’t caught out.
5. Cristian Pavón (Argentina)
Pavón only spent 20 minutes on the field, but he had a massive impact nonetheless. He was the only Argentinian player who could use the spaces Iceland didn’t really defend to his advantage, finding lots of open space on the wing and wreaking havoc when he had the ball at his feet. He could have easily won a late penalty, and a shot from outside the box gave Halldórsson some serious trouble.