Excuse me because I was born in Argentina and I’m a huge supporter of La Albiceleste so this will be biased, yes?
Argentina and Iceland are two of the most popular squads for adoptive fans. While they could not be more different — one is among the global futbol established elites, the other an aspiring nuveau riche rough around the edges — both meet today at Spartak Stadium in Moscow.
Argentina are expecting a tough physical battle, particularly in the middle of the pitch. On the other hand, Jorge Sampaoli is convinced that Iceland will leave the wings fairly exposed, which is why he’s given his fullbacks, expected to be Nicolas Tagliafico on the left and Eduardo “El Toto” Salvio on the right, free license to bomb forward to complement the wide attacking mids (expected to be Angel Di Maria and Maximiliano Meza).
If Sampaoli holds his nerve and starts Lionel Messi and Sergio “El Kun” Aguero up front, there will be a definite size mismatch between Argentina’s diminutive duo and Iceland’s 300 Spartans-like defense. Sampaoli, always the man with the plan (or so Argentina supporters hope) is not perturbed; rather he feels that the two world-class “super fleas” will drive Iceland’s giants crazy. This battle-within-a-battle will be ENORMOUSLY (pun intended) fun to watch!
If you see Gonzalo “La Pipa” Higuain start ahead of El Kun, it is because Sampaoli had a last minute change of heart and wants to add muscle to the front line.
The other battle to watch is down the middle, where Sampaoli feels Iceland will look to counterattack. This is the reason that he has reinforced the middle in most of the practice sessions leading up to this game: The back duo of Marcos Rojo and Nicolas Otamendi will be shielded by Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia. For most of the training camp sessions leading up to the final week of preparations, it was Giovani Lo Celso (not Biglia) who was preferred to partner Mascherano in the pivot. But with dreams of a Gylfi Sigurdsson-led and Johan Berg Gudmunson-aided counterattack down the middle of the pitch, “Sampa” seems to have settled on four defenders to protect Wilfredo Caballero, who will be in goal.
Nicolas Otamendi’s role and responsibilities, by the way, will be massive. Not only is he the most physical defender in this Argentina team, but he’ll also be one of the very few players capable of mounting an aerial threat from Messi’s set pieces. I expect Otamendi will suffer what the Spanish refer to as desgaste fisico, which roughly translates to “significant physical wear and tear”. Similarly, I would not be surprised if he’s shown a yellow or even a red card.
In terms of substitutions, I’m looking at Lo Celso to come in for Biglia at some point. Biglia is still dealing with the effects of a serious back injury suffered toward the end of his season with Serie A’s AC Milan. If that change is made, it will likely necessitate a defensive reinforcement at the full back position. I expect Toto Salvio, who is a natural wide attacking mid, to make way for a more defensive RB, most likely Gabriel Mercado. The third change would be La Pipa coming in for El Kun. The one wrench in this strategy would be if the moment is too big for likely starter Maximiliano Meza, in which case a halftime substitution would see one of Cristian Pavon or Paulo Dybala come in.
The Other Saturday Matchups
The morning kicks off with a fun matchup between heavily favored France and underdog Australia. I think I can talk myself into liking the Socceroos! Maty Ryan is a good keeper who plays his club futbol for Brighton. Midfielder Aaron Mooy is also a very nice Premier League player who can create promising attacking plays, and takes mean set pieces.
I think France will either boom or bust; there’s nothing in the middle. We will know so much more after this game.
Immediately following the Argentina match is a really exciting matchup between Peru and Denmark, two very popular dark horse candidates. For Peru I’ll be looking at midfielder Cristian Cueva and striker Paolo Guerrero. For Denmark, it is all about my EPL Fantasy God Christian Eriksen of Tottenham, and Pione Sisto who has the look of a breakthrough young player.
Croatia and Nigeria will wrap up our very busy Saturday. This one is a very important matchup to see who will join Argentina in surviving Group D (“D” as in “Death”). Expect Luka Modric to play further forward than he does at Real Madrid, which will significantly increase his assists potential. For the Super Eagles, I will be paying close attention to high-flying wingers like Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi.
How far do you see Argentina going in Russia? Do you think Iceland make it out of this Group “D”eath? Do you think Messi will have a big tournament, or do you foresee more tears of disappointment? If you already have an underperformance by a captain, did you remember to move the armband? If so, to whom? Let us know in the comments below!