Ar­gentina must con­quer own demons to beat Ice­land

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - WORLD CUP -

SOCHI, Rus­sia: Ar­gentina start as hot fa­vorites to beat Ice­land in their open­ing World Cup Group D match Satur­day but the tough­est op­po­nent for the run­ners-up four years ago may be them­selves rather than the tiny tour­na­ment debu­tants.

Cham­pi­ons in 1978 and 1986, Ar­gentina are part of foot­ball’s elite and have in their ranks Lionel Messi, the five-time world player of the year. But they only qual­i­fied for Rus­sia thanks to a win in their fi­nal qual­i­fier against Ecuador and scored 19 goals in 18 games, the low­est by any South Amer­i­can qual­i­fier since the sin­gle-group for­mat was adopted in the mid-1990s.

Since then, the team’s on the field woes have be­come worse – a slim win over non-qual­i­fiers Italy in March was fol­lowed four days later by a 6-1 ham­mer­ing by Spain – and had been ex­ac­er­bated by bad luck and poor plan­ning.

Ar­gentina lost their first-choice goal­keeper Ser­gio Romero to a knee in­jury and mid­fielder Manuel Lanzini with­drew af­ter dam­ag­ing lig­a­ments nine days be­fore the tour­na­ment. They pulled them­selves to­gether to beat Haiti 4-0 but that did lit­tle to con­vince anx­ious fans.

Argentine prepa­ra­tions were dealt another blow when an il­lad­vised friendly against Is­rael in Jerusalem was can­celed due to po­lit­i­cal pres­sure. In spite of all this, Ar­gentina are still firm fa­vorites in Moscow Satur­day to over­come the small­est na­tion ever to qual­ify for the World Cup fi­nals.

Ice­land were the sur­prise team at Euro 2016, draw­ing with win­ners Por­tu­gal in the group stage as well as de­feat­ing Eng­land in the last 16 on their way to the quar­ter­fi­nal de­feat by France.

But their form has dipped this year and they have failed to win any of their last four matches, three of which they lost to Mex­ico, Peru and Nor­way, by ship­ping three goals.

Key mid­fielder Gylfi Sig­urds­son has missed most of the last three months with a knee in­jury. He made sub­sti­tute ap­pear­ances in Ice­land’s fi­nal two friendlies this month and his pres­ence from the start would be a vi­tal con­fi­dence booster.

Few peo­ple be­lieve Ice­land can win but they may take heart from re­call­ing the last time Ar­gentina ex­pected to win the open­ing game of the tour­na­ment against a team who had never won a World Cup match.

The year was 1990 and Ar­gentina’s op­po­nents were Cameroon who went on to win 1-0 and moved for­ward to reach the quar­ter­fi­nals, a feat still un­sur­passed by an African side. –

This is likely Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup.

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