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World Cup preview: Iceland – Sports Mole

World Cup preview: Iceland – Sports Mole

Ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole assesses the chances of tournament debutants Iceland, two years on from reaching the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.

History will be made this summer when Iceland travel to Russia for their first ever appearance at the World Cup finals.

One of two teams making their debuts at the tournament, Iceland boast the record of being the smallest nation by population to ever qualify for a World Cup, but they will be looking to make a big impact.

© Reuters

Iceland proved to be one of the stories of Euro 2016 as they made it all the way to the quarter-finals against the odds, beating England along the way in what was their first ever taste of a major tournament.

Here, Sports Mole previews their chances of enjoying similar success on the world stage.


GROUP

Iceland’s hopes of once again upsetting the odds and making it through to the knockout stages will not have been dampened too much by the draw, which placed them in Group D alongside Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria.

World Cup Group D

Argentina will be the favourites to top the group, but they almost missed out on the tournament altogether while Iceland need only look back as far as last year for belief they can finish above Croatia, having done so in qualifying.

Nigeria’s qualifying campaign was more impressive, but if Iceland can safely negotiate their way through the opening two matches against Argentina and the African outfit then they will go into their final showdown with Croatia full of confidence.

ICELAND FIXTURES

June 16: Argentina vs. Iceland (2pm, Otkritie Arena, Moscow)
June 22: Nigeria vs. Iceland (4pm, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd)
June 26: Iceland vs. Croatia (7pm, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Iceland used the momentum of their Euro 2016 run to good effect in their World Cup qualifying campaign, winning seven of their 10 outings to finish above the likes of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey in the solitary automatic qualifying place.

A 2-0 defeat at the hands of Croatia in November 2016 left them playing catch-up, but they gained revenge for that with a 1-0 win of their own in June the following year.

Iceland players celebrate after beating Kosovo to book their place at the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Defeat to Finland by the same scoreline ensured that the race at the top of Group I remained the most open of any in the European section, but Iceland then recorded three successive victories without conceding to close out their campaign and seal top spot.

Triumphs at home to Ukraine and in Turkey – the latter an impressive 3-0 win – left them only needing to beat Kosovo at home on the final matchday to secure their place at this summer’s tournament – something they duly achieved with a 2-0 victory.


RECENT FORM

It has not exactly been an encouraging build-up to the tournament for Iceland, who are without a win in a FIFA-approved match since the end of their qualification campaign.

The World Cup debutants have lost four and drawn two of their outings since then, which is particularly concerning considering that four of their opponents did not even qualify for the tournament themselves.

Iceland players celebrate during their international friendly with Norway on June 2, 2018© Reuters

So far this year Iceland have been beaten by Mexico, Peru and Norway, conceding exactly three goals in each of those matches including two in the final 10 minutes of the latter to throw away a 2-1 lead.

Hallgrimsson’s side did at least stop the rot in their final match before they get their campaign underway, although they once again squandered an advantage in the second half as they let their 2-0 lead slip to a 2-2 draw with Ghana in Reykjavik.


SQUAD

Iceland World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Hannes Thor Halldorsson (Randers FC), Runar Alex Runarsson (FC Nordsjælland), Frederik Schram (FC Roskilde).

Defenders: Kari Arnason (Vikingur), Ari Freyr Skulason (Lokeren), Birkir Mar Saevarsson (Valur), Sverrir Ingi Ingason (FC Rostov), Hordur Magnusson (Bristol City), Holmar Orn Eyjolfsson (Levski Sofia), Ragnar Sigurdsson (FC Rostov).

Midfielders: Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Burnley), Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Arnor Ingvi Traustason (Malmo FF), Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Olafur Ingi Skulason (Kardemir Karabukspor), Rurik Gislason (SV Sandhausen), Samuel Fridjonsson (Valerenga), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City).

Forwards: Alfred Finnbogason (FC Augsburg), Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson (FC Rostov), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (Reading), Albert Gudmundsson (PSV Eindhoven).


STAR PLAYER – Gylfi Sigurdsson

Iceland midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson in action during his side's international friendly with Norway on June 2, 2018© Reuters

While it could be argued that the absence of Aron Gunnarsson would have had a bigger impact on their World Cup campaign, it is difficult to argue against Gylfi Sigurdsson being Iceland’s star man purely for his attacking ability.

Like Gunnarsson, Sigurdsson will head into the tournament with limited playing time under his belt due to a knee injury sustained for Everton in mid-March, and Hallgrimsson will be desperate to get the creative midfielder up to full speed.

The experienced campaigner is at the centre of this Iceland side in more ways than one, scoring four goals in qualifying and supplying as many assists, while also creating further chances aplenty for others.

Sigurdsson has been named his country’s footballer of the year for the last five years running and, even on the back of a disappointing first season at Everton, he is key to the Euro 2016 quarter-finalists’ hopes of sending more shockwaves across the globe.


Iceland manager Heimir Hallgrimsson on June 2, 2018© Reuters

Iceland’s remarkable run at Euro 2016 came with Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson in joint control, but the latter will be in sole charge this summer after Lagerback left to take over Norway.

Hallgrimsson has the chance to lead Iceland to even greater heights now; indeed some may claim that he has already managed that by earning World Cup qualification for the first time ever.

The 40-year-old former dentist enjoyed an unremarkable playing and coaching career until Euro 2016, with the bulk of his time spent at Icelandic club IBV.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: None

Iceland will be appearing at their first ever World Cup this summer, having tried and failed to qualify on 12 previous occasions.

Indeed, it wasn’t until Euro 2016 that Iceland reached any major tournament, although their memorable run to the quarter-finals in France will leave them full of belief that they can make their mark on the World Cup too.


PREDICTION

Iceland’s hopes of repeating their Euro 2016 heroics look bleak considering their recent form, and as such we’re predicting them to prop up the rest in Group D.

VERDICT: Fourth in Group D

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