Two-time World Cup winners Argentina meet debutants Iceland in the opening match of Group D in Russia 2018 and Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) makes the case for an upset.
Argentina v Iceland | Saturday 16th June 2018, 14:00 | ITV
Should Lionel Messi and co. be favourites here? Sure. Should they be odds-on to beat an Iceland side playing their first ever match in this tournament? Why not. But, should they be as short as 2/7 with some bookmakers? Hell no.
There isn’t a trader in sight who has quoted an Argies probability less than 72% but I don’t have anywhere near that much confidence in the South American giants.
Let’s have a quick glance at their route to Russia. Argentina won just seven of their 18 games – a 39% success rate – and one victory in four encounters with cellar-dwellers Venezuela and Bolivia suggests they are prone to complacency.
While their third-place finish was enough for automatic qualification, they accrued just two more points than Peru, who had to go through the play-offs and two more than Chile, who crashed out, so fine were the margins.
Since Lionel Messi missed a 6-1 March mauling in Madrid, two cancelled friendlies mean La Albiceleste have only played one warm-up game – a 4-0 win over 104th-ranked Haiti – which came 17 days before their opener.
The approach over the last two years has gone from Gerardo Martino’s tiki-taka to Edgardo Bauza’s counter-attacking and then Jorge Sampaoli’s high-pressing; changes which have disrupted things.
Sampaoli, who has already faced criticism from Diego Maradona, has frequently changed formation and struggled to find a system that incorporates his methods, but also gets the best out of Messi and accounts for a slow defence.
For any team lacking confidence in it’s playing identity, Iceland can be dangerous opponents.
Iceland to be feared
How could anybody forget the Icelandic clap?
What made the wide-armed grunt and clap one of the most iconic features of Euro 2016 was the ferocity and intensity with which every fan joined in. They stayed silent for periods, then with impeccable timing committed fully to the system, creating the sense that they were going into war.
That might sound a tad melodramatic, but in some ways the togetherness in the stands mirrors the unity on the field. Iceland are battle-hardened, driven and committed, but apply those qualities within a well-structured system in which no player is more important than the team.
Our Boys boast one of the best throw-in takers on the planet in captain Aron Gunnarsson, a handball player in his youth. Gylfi Sigurdsson meanwhile, was the third-highest Premier League assister in 2016-17, almost entirely due to his set piece proficiency.
They could have nine outfield players who are over six foot tall while their opponents may have just two – one being striker Gonzalo Higuain – so Iceland will fancy their chances of scoring from dead-ball scenarios.
Naive to label the Nordics newbies
They can draw on the excitement and novelty of playing their first World Cup match, which could contribute to the performance; and yet it would be naïve to label them as newbies.
Heimir Hallgrimsson’s troops drew with Portugal at Euro 2016 (when co-managed by Lars Lagerback, who has since left) before beating Austria and then famously knocking out England in the Last 16.
They built on a progressive campaign by totalling 22 points from 10 World Cup qualifying games to top a group that included Croatia.
These are no minnows and we’ll be siding with them; the question is, how?
The betting angle
Unibet’s 22/1 on a 1-0 Iceland win looks attractive given that 29 of the last 128 World Cup matches (23%) have finished with one goal scored; and if the European outfit do strike first we can expect them to prioritise defending.
There could also be mileage in taking the 33/1 from 888 on Kari Arnason to score anytime; the 6’3” centre-back, formerly of Plymouth and Rotherham, has bagged in two of his last four international appearances and Argentina’s lack of height means in the opposing box, he could have the freedom of Moscow.
For the prudent punters among us, we’ll recommend the 89/100 (Blacktype) on Iceland with a +1.5 Asian Handicap start. This one will land if the Nordic nation win, draw, or lose by a solitary strike.