Argentina training to combat Iceland's 6 cm average height advantage
BRONNITSY, Russia -- Argentina's World Cup squad has some of the best players on the planet, but they'll be at a disadvantage in one area in their Group D opener against Iceland: height.
In theory, two-time World Cup champion Argentina really shouldn't be fearful of facing Iceland, who are making their first appearance at the tournament. But there is a bit of worry in the Argentina camp about giving up around 6 centimetres (two inches) to their Iceland counterparts.
Icelandic footballers are the tallest at the World Cup in Russia, with an average height of 1.85 metres (over 6 feet), making them especially strong in aerial duels in defence and attack. Argentina, meanwhile, are among the shortest teams at the tournament at 1.79 metres (just over 5-feet-10 inches).
It's a weapon Iceland can potentially use to counter the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi and other players when the two teams face each other Saturday, and Albiceleste manager Jorge Sampaoli has put special emphasis on height during tactical work at the team's training center in the Moscow suburb of Bronnitsy.
"It's going to be a very tough match," goalkeeper Willy Caballero said on Wednesday. "They defend well as a group, with two very tight lines. It will be difficult to get in through the middle. We'll have to use the wings."
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In training, Sampaoli tried out a zonal defensive system involving centre-backs Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo. Other taller players in the Argentina team including Maximiliano Meza, Lucas Biglia and Angel Di Maria will man-mark their rivals.
"Over the past week, we have been working on specific issues like set pieces," said Nahuel Guzman, another Argentina goalkeeper. "The team is convinced that the coach's approach is key. Hopefully we'll be able to demonstrate it in Saturday's match."
Guzman added that Argentina should be "patient, move the ball to create space and increase the speed of play with two or three touches. It will be a very laborious match. We'll have to know how to deal with the anxiety."
Iceland are seen by many as a straightforward opponent for Argentina, who won the 1978 and 1986 World Cups and lost in the final to Germany in Brazil in the 2014 edition.
But Caballero isn't taking anything for granted, saying: "As it is the first game of the World Cup, it is difficult to start playing at the best level."