Group D opened play with heavy group favorite and two-time champion Argentina taking on World Cup darlings Iceland, making their first Cup appearance ever. Imagine a game where one team had the ball over 70% of the time, completed their passes 92% of the time, had over 700 passes while the other team had less than 200, took 26 shots to the other team’s 9, and had 10 corners vs. 2 for the other team. You would expect that game to be a blowout. The beauty of the beautiful game though is that dominance on the field does not always translate to wins.
As expected, Argentina dominated the ball from the get go. Iceland was back on its heels and forced to bring everyone back on defense and to play rough. The continued pressure by the Argentine offense finally achieved success when Sergio Aguero found a glimmer of space on a turn around shot that found the upper corner of the goal. With the lead in hand, Argentina relaxed and Iceland pressed forward. A shot across the box was deflected by Wilfredo Caballero, the Argentine goalie and onto the foot of Alfred Finnbogason among a sea of defenders. Finnbogason buried the equalizer in the back of the net. Argentina continued it’s offensive onslaught in the second half and earned a penalty kick after an unnecessary trip by an Icelandic defender. Superstar Lionel Messi took the kick and directed it to the left corner, but goalie Hannes Halldorsson, a filmmaker when not playing futbol, guessed right and made the diving save. Messi did not hit the ball hard and one wonders why he was taking the kick in the first place as he has only made 50% of his penalty kicks lately. This failure would haunt Argentina the rest of the way as Iceland packed its defense, sending multiple men to mark Messi and rarely advancing to the other side of the field. Iceland was content to play for the draw, taking no shots in the second half. Argentina never figured out how to break through this defensive effort and the 1-1 draw was not the result they expected.
The other group D game featured Croatia and the tourney’s youngest team, Nigeria. Unlike the Argentina-Iceland match, this game was spent with a lot of back and forth pushes. Both teams found opportunities. Nigeria repeatedly went to Victor Moses down the right wing, but while he delivered many good crosses into the box, a solid Croatian defense put out any fires before they started. 30 minutes in, Croatia broke through on a corner kick onto the near side of the goal box where it was headed into the middle. Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic drove a diving header off a defender and into the corner of the goal from there. Other than that goal, neither team had a shot on goal in the first half. The Super Eagles started strong in the second half using superior speed and switching the point of attack to create opportunities. Like the first half though, they cannot finish. Croatia’s offense was not putting anything on goal either. Midway in the second half, a Croatian pass into the Nigerian box resulted in defender William Troost-Ekong making a football, not a futbol, tackle, wrapping his arms around Mandzukic and pulling him to the ground. Croatian captain Luka Modric drilled the resulting penalty kick into the bottom left corner for a 2-0 lead. Down by two, one would expect Nigeria to play with some desperation and push the attack, but, if anything, Croatia did a better job controlling the pace through the end of the game. The victory left Croatia in sole possession of first place of Group D, but with tough games against Argentina and Iceland yet to play.