KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW : Could he? Would he? Lionel Messi, that is. Cristiano Ronaldo had thrown down the gauntlet with his hat-trick against Spain. Now it was up to his old foe on and off the pitch to respond.
The context was straightforward enough. Argentina’s captain was supported by one of the most gifted squads of individuals at the finals and confronted by Iceland’s World Cup newcomers.
What could possibly go wrong?
But Iceland, of course, never read the script and, if they do, they do not recognise it. Hence the South American giants and Nordic outsiders finished all-square at 1-1 in their Group D opener at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The last time Argentina appeared in the finals was in the 2014 final when they lost to remarkable goal in the final seconds of extra time against Germany. Messi, that day in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana, was the unhappiest man ever to be hailed as best player at the World Cup.
He is used to pressure. Thrives on it. This is the reason he has scored so many goals over so many years for club and country. But he must also depend to some extent on his team-mates and right from the first minute in north-west Moscow was evidence of defensive fragility which may, sooner or later, cost Argentina and Messi dear.
In the very opening minute Gylfi Sigurdsson was allowed to pump in the first shot of the game. It flew wide but Argentina, as time proved, failed to heed the warning. They were too busy feeding Javier Mascherano in deep midfield and Messi further forward.
These two were at the heart of all Argentina’s best work. Messi’s free kick was back-headed just wide of goal by Nicolas Tagliafico and the captain had a swerving drive punshed out in a panic by keeper Hannes Halldorsson.
A goal was a matter of time – and two came.
First Sergio Aguero held off a defender, swivelled and shot home all in one superb movement to put Argentina in front in the 19th minute then sloppy defending at the other end saw Alfred Finnbogasson level after cocach Jorge Sampaoli’s men failed to clear a Sigurdsson.
Argentina dominated the rest of the first half but their confidence had clearly been upset. Lucas Biglia shot hopefully high while Messi found himself being forced to run square to the Icelandic defence rather than into it.
Iceland’s defensive commitment also earned a little luck just before half-time when Polish referee Szymon Marciniak refused a penalty claim when Ragnar Sigurdsson’s hand deflected an Eduardo Salvio cross for a corner.
No argument just after the hour, however, when Hordur Magnusson bowled over Maxi Meza. That meant a penalty and the opportunity for Messi to open his account.
But his kick was a little tentative and keeper Hannes Halldorsson had not read the script. He flung himself to his right to pushed the ball away and Iceland survived.
The siege continued. Messi tried all he knew. One free kick flew over the bar, another was blocked by the defensive wall, an attempted through pass for Aguero was cut out.
iceland had more luck. Rightback Birkir Saevarsson tripped newly-arrived substitute Cristian Pavon but referee Marciniak awarded a corner instead of a justified penalty.
Messi kept on going. He whipped a curling shot an inch wide of Halldorsson’s right-hand post, had another effort blocked by team-mate Aguero’s elbow and was then repulsed in attempting an intricate interchange with Ever Banega.
In the fifth and last minute stoppage time Messi stood over a freekick 30 metres out in front of goal. It was his ‘Ronaldo moment’.
But his kick flew back off the wall. Argentina, like Portugal, had drawn their opening match. But Messi was the loser.
After one game each, at last.