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Argentina v Iceland preview and predictions: Lionel Messi in World Cup action

Lionel Messi and his Argentina team-mates kick off their World Cup campaign against Iceland in Moscow on Saturday (kick-off 2pm BST).

England’s Euro 2016 conquerors are making their World Cup debut and boss Heimir Hallgrimsson has labelled the Group D opener against Messi and co as “the biggest game in the history of Icelandic football”.

Hallgrimsson, a dentist by trade, told a pre-match press conference: “Everyone wants to play. This is the biggest game in the history of Icelandic football and it’s a headache which our training team has to work on.”

Time is running out for Lionel Messi in international competition
Time is running out for Lionel Messi in international competition

“Regarding Messi, I don’t have a magic formula. Everybody has tried everything against him and he always manages to score. He is one of the best players in the world.

“I’ve said it would be unfair to give a player the role of marking Messi. We will (play against him) like everything we do, we’ll do it together. We’ll help each other and try to do it as a team.”

Two-time champions Argentina arrived in Russia dogged by poor form, injuries and controversy, their final warm-up against Israel in Jerusalem cancelled after Palestinian protests.

Lars Lagerback steered Iceland to a stunning victory over England in 2016 - and the 'Viking Thunder Clap' caught on
Lars Lagerback steered Iceland to a stunning victory over England in 2016 – and the ‘Viking Thunder Clap’ caught on

Messi is a man on a mission as he chases his first World Cup winner’s medal and, while accusing Argentina of over-reliance on the Barcelona star may seem unfair to a team boasting the attacking talents of Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, it is a view coach Jorge Sampaoli has expressed himself.

“He can carry the team on his shoulders,” Sampaoli said of the player who scored 45 goals in 54 games for Barcelona last season. “This is going to be his team.”

Team news

Aguero will start up front for Argentina after Sampaoli confirmed his side’s starting XI for the game against Iceland during his pre-match press conference.

Argentina team to face Iceland: Caballero, Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico, Meza, Mascherano, Biglia, Di Maria, Messi, Aguero.

Aside from thwarting Messi, Iceland’s main concern is the fitness of captain Aron Gunnarsson. The Cardiff midfielder has been recovering from a knee injury sustained back in April.

Opta stats

This will be the first ever encounter between Argentina and Iceland.

Argentina have gone past the first round in 11 of their last 12 World Cup appearances, the only exception coming in 2002. In fact, they have won 12 of their last 15 group games at the World Cup (D2 L1), their only defeat in that run coming against England in 2002 (0-1).

Argentina have also topped their group in each of the last three World Cups. They have also won their opening game in each of the last six editions.

Iceland have qualified for their first World Cup and their second major tournament after Euro 2016 where they reached the quarter-finals. Slovakia were the last World Cup debutants to make it to the knockout stages of the tournament (2010).

At 334,000 inhabitants when they qualified, Iceland are the smallest ever nation to reach the World Cup finals.

Only Edinson Cavani (10) scored more goals than Lionel Messi (7) in the CONMEBOLqualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. Messi has scored four and assisted one of Argentina’s last seven goals at the World Cup finals.

Gylfi Sigurdsson was top scorer (4 goals) and joint-top appearance maker (10 games) for Iceland in the qualifiers for Russia 2018.

#ObserverSport Pundit’s prediction

I have gone for Argentina to beat Iceland. We all remember Iceland from when they beat us at the last Euros, but they are not that good a team and the next game they got destroyed by France. Meanwhile, Argentina will be good going forward, although I do worry about them at the back, but I expect them to win this one.

Our Pundit Predicts: Argentina 3-1 Iceland