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, an island nation of 330,000, is the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup but emphatically showed it can mix it up with the heavyweights of the game.
“We were playing against one of the best teams in the world, who had the best player in the world,” Halldorsson said. “It’s especially important for us because it helped us get a point, which is important for us to reach our goal to get out of the group.”
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.
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