Messi penalty saved as Iceland hold Argentina
Lionel Messi fluffed his World Cup lines on Saturday, missing a penalty as tiny Iceland held Argentina to a 1-1 draw after France benefited from the first use of the Video Assistant Referee system in the tournament’s history.
Just a day after his eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo scored a sensational hat-trick to secure a 3-3 draw for Portugal against Spain, Messi had a golden chance to write his own headlines.
The Argentine stepped up to the spot with the teams locked at 1-1 in Moscow’s Spartak Stadium after Rurik Gislason was adjudged to have brought down Maximiliano Meza in the 63rd minute.
But Hannes Halldorsson guessed correctly and palmed away the Argentine skipper’s side-footed effort and, despite intense pressure, Iceland held on for a famous draw.
Sergio Aguero scored the opener for the two-time world champions in the 19th minute but his strike was almost immediately cancelled out by Alfred Finnbogaso.
It was another extraordinary result in the history of Iceland, who famously dumped England out of Euro 2016.
The island nation of 330,000 is the smallest country ever to qualify for the finals but emphatically showed they can mix it with the heavyweights.
Messi is yet to win a major international tournament and time is running out with his 31st birthday looming.
VAR steps in
In the first match of the day, France launched their World Cup campaign with victory against Australia as VAR was used for the first time at a World Cup.
The Group C match in Kazan was goalless when Antoine Griezmann went down after a tackle in the second half. Uruguayan referee Andres Cunha did not award a penalty but after viewing the VAR footage, ruled it was a spot-kick and Griezmann gave France a 1-0 lead.
Minutes later the Socceroos drew level through a penalty of their own, although this time it was awarded by the referee, with Mile Jedinak coolly beating Hugo Lloris.
But Pogba won a tight match for the 1998 champions when his shot bounced over the line off the crossbar in the 81st minute.
VAR has been used to varying degrees of success in Serie A and the German Bundesliga, while FIFA used the system at the Confederations Cup in Russia last year.
The technology is used in what are considered “game-changing” situations such as a goal, penalty or red card, and can also be employed to help referees with cases of mistaken identity.
“Luckily for us the system was there,” Griezmann said. “When the referee went to see the video, I thought it was a penalty. I was already thinking about how I would take it.”
France coach Didier Deschamps said the Euro 2016 finalists must improve.
“It’s the World Cup, it’s the first match. But, yes, we must do better, and we can do better,” he said.
The day’s action also pits Peru against Denmark.
Paolo Guerrero was left out of Peru’s starting line-up as Jefferson Farfan was preferred as striker.
Having had his 14-month ban for taking cocaine overturned just weeks before the World Cup started, Guerrero, 34, started on the bench in Saransk amid questions about his fitness.
Croatia take on African powerhouse Nigeria in Saturday’s final match in Kaliningrad in Group D, providing a possible test of FIFA’s determination to keep racism out of its showpiece tournament in Russia.
Croatia will field Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic against Nigeria but the focus is likely to be on the reception local fans give the Africans.
Racism has dogged the Russian game for decades and FIFA last month fined the national football association over chants directed at black players during a friendly against France.
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said there had been no issues so far and he did not expect that to change.
“We all are sure that there will not be any problems for the Nigerian players because the atmosphere we felt already arriving in Russia was very good,” he said.
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