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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Messi misses from the spot as Iceland revel in historic World Cup debut

Scandinavians battle for a point as Argentina captain sees second-half penalty saved by Halldorsson: 'to face the best player in the world, it’s a big moment and a dream come true to save it'

Iceland had two obvious heroes, and probably 10, 11, 12, 13 more. Argentina and Lionel Messi had only regrets.

Regrets that his team could not open another go at another World Cup with three points; regrets that their captain and standout star could not convert from the penalty spot just after the hour, with the scores tied and tension high, in Moscow.

In the end of a pulsating encounter at a piercing Spartak Stadium, Argentina were held 1-1 by Iceland. Much to many's surprise, the two-time winners of football’s showpiece were unable to find their way past a country appearing at the tournament for the very first time.

“The only major problem is that we didn’t win the points we wanted, the points we came to get,” said Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentina manager. “That’s what we had hoped and desired for.

"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 know that down the road we’re going to still have the same passion we had at the beginning. Football is like that.

"We need to be very strong now as a group, we need to believe in ourselves and understand we have all the tools to beat anybody and continue forward."

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Much like Iceland, Sergio Aguero notched a first of his own, the Argentine striker scoring the game’s opening goal on 19 minutes. The prolific Manchester City frontman, participating in a third World Cup, had finally bagged one on the grand stage.

Yet he was upstaged by Iceland and Alfred Finnbogason and Hannes Halldorsson. The former created history by notching his country’s first World Cup goal. The latter repeated what he did to Cristiano Ronaldo at the 2016 Euros: he saved a spot kick from one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.

“As a goalkeeper, to play for Iceland in the first game of the World Cup, to face the best player in the world, it’s a big moment and a dream come true to save it,” said Halldorsson, who confirmed he had studied in the build-up to the match Messi’s past penalties. “Especially because it helped us get a big point that I hope is going to prove to be important for us to reach our goal to qualify.”

Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason celebrates scoring against Argentina. Carl Recine / Reuters
Iceland's Alfred Finnbogason celebrates scoring against Argentina. Carl Recine / Reuters

Argentina should still emerge from a Group D containing Croatia and Nigeria, but this increases an already heavy pressure. It could have been so different, but Messi missed, the brilliant Barcelona forward taking his recent tally of successful penalties for club and country to three from a possible seven.

Of course, he attempted to atone, but Iceland held on. They should maybe have even conceded another penalty, had the referee seen Birkir Saevarsson tripping substitute Cristian Pavon with 13 minutes remaining.

As it was, and against the odds, Iceland matched Messi and their mighty opponents.

The Scandinavians, who debuted at a major finals only at the last Euros, celebrated the result as well they should, by savouring the moment with the many fans who travelled from the smallest-populated country of the 32 taking part in Russia this month.

Halldorsson did not have to justify the scenes at the conclusion, but when the question came about delighting that much in a point, he said: “It’s a big draw for us. We felt at the last Euros how important it is to get a point on the board right away if we’re going to reach our goal to qualify from the group.

“We were playing against one of the best teams in the world, against one of the best players in the world. We were playing our first game in the World Cup, so exactly the same how we celebrated when we played against Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo now against Argentina and Lionel Messi.”

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Read more on World Cup 2018:

The National: predictions, winners, losers, top-scorers and players to watch

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Lowdown: where to watch 2018 Fifa World Cup matches in Dubai and kick-off times

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