MOSCOW – If there is one flaw in Lionel Messi’s genius, it might be his failure to score penalty kicks in big games.
Add Messi’s saved attempt against Iceland on Saturday at the World Cup to misses for Argentina in shootouts for the Copa America title, and for Barcelona in a Champions League semifinal match that was later lost.
At least Messi’s miss in the 64th minute at Spartak Stadium – his fourth in his last seven penalty attempts for his club and his country – was not in a losing cause. A 1-1 draw with impressive World Cup newcomer Iceland is far from a fatal blow to Argentina’s chances of advancing from a well-balanced group that also includes Croatia and Nigeria.
“It hurt missing the penalty. It could have given us the lead and that could have changed the match,” Messi said. “It would have changed their game plan, too. They probably would open a little bit more and we could get more space.”
The day after Cristiano Ronaldo scored three times from three shots on target – including a penalty and a spectacular free kick – to salvage a point for Portugal against Spain, Messi’s tally of 11 shots, only three on target, and no goals was curious.
The score was already 1-1 when Argentina was awarded the penalty after Hordur Magnusson’s tumbling fall over Sergio Aguero as both chased Messi’s floated cross. Messi placed his shot to the right of Hannes Halldorsson, but the Iceland goalkeeper dived and got two hands behind the ball.
“I did my homework. I looked at a lot of penalties from Messi,” Halldorsson said. “I had a good feeling that he would go this way today.”
Messi had a final chance to redeem his team with the final kick of the game, but his free kick from 25 yards failed to clear a solid defensive wall. It summed up the entire second half of resolute hard work by Iceland.
At the end, Messi retreated alone into the center circle with his head bowed and hands on his knees.
The Argentina great, considered by many to be the best player of all time, has missed more than 20 penalty kicks in his career.
“That’s just another statistic, it’s part of the past,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said of Messi’s latest miscue.
Iceland played its debut on soccer’s biggest stage like it belonged alongside the 2014 runners-up. Indeed, the result and performance matched its European Championship two years ago. Then, Iceland frustrated and stopped Ronaldo from scoring and rallied to earn a 1-1 draw with Portugal.
The small Nordic island nation’s team could have taken an early lead Saturday but Birkir Bjarnason side-footed a shot wide of goal when goalkeeper Willy Caballero was exposed.
Aguero then scored in the 19th minute. Spinning off a defender with his back to goal at the penalty spot, Aguero moved to his right and hooked his left foot around to send a rising shot high into the net.
It was a finish worthy of Argentina great Diego Maradona, who was watching in the VIP seats. The FIFA ambassador was puffing a large cigar despite smoking being banned in all World Cup venues.
Iceland was level four minutes later, however, when Alfred Finnbogason scored after Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero pushed a low cross into the forward’s path for a volley from eight yards.
Key to success
Argentina fans booed and whistled when the giant stadium screen showed Halldorsson was named man of the match. But his faultless handling and excellent shot-stopping was deserving of the accolade.
In contrast, Caballero caused uneasy moments for his defense in the first half.
Iceland also protected Halldorsson with swarming runs and tackling to shut down Messi and Argentina’s attacking lanes.
This was the first game in Group D, which looks even more evenly balanced now than it did at kickoff. Croatia and Nigeria are also in the group.
Argentina will next play Croatia on Thursday in Nizhny Novgorod, while Iceland plays Nigeria on Friday in Volgograd.
“Are you Cristiano Ronaldo’s uncle?” Halldorsson said to a reporter who asked why Iceland celebrated so much for a draw.
Ronaldo criticized Iceland the same way after Portugal’s 1-1 draw in Iceland’s Euro 2016 debut.
“Maybe we needed to be more creative in the first half. We were very slow on the ball,” Sampaoli said.
Thousands of Iceland fans did their ritual claps and war chants of “Huh!” during the game and after the final whistle with their players. But they were massively outnumbered in the 45,000-capacity stadium by Argentina fans, and Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson did not understand why.
“Strangely, we had difficulties in buying tickets,” he said. “I can’t see where all the Argentinians bought their tickets. Because we could have sold much more in Iceland.
“Just wait and see when we win a game,” Hallgrimsson said. “That is going to be a celebration.”
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