World Cup 2018: Iceland Preview
The tiny North Atlantic island nation head to Russia for their first ever World Cup finals. Can they build on their incredible Euro 2016 run?
The meteoric, fairytale rise to international recognition is showing no signs of slowing down for Iceland.
Breaking onto the continental scene after an amazing run at Euro 2016 in France, the tiny island nation with a population of under 350,000 is on the way to its first ever World Cup.
With a squad hardly bursting with world-renowned superstars, the Icelandic side has won the hearts of fans all over the football world with their belief, hope, and teamwork.
Automatically qualifying after topping their group, Iceland will dream of a long stay on their debut.
Route to Russia
Iceland takes part in the UEFA region of qualifying.
In arguably the most competitive qualification region, teams must win their group to gain an automatic passage to the finals.
Finishing in second place results in a dreaded home-and-away playoff against another second-placed side.
Iceland though finished with a two-point cushion in Group I, thus going through to Russia automatically.
In what looked, on paper, one of the most open and competitive groups, Iceland had to navigate their way through ahead of Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and newcomers Kosovo.
Winning seven and drawing one of their ten games was enough to see Heimir Hallgrímsson’s men book their place on the biggest stage of them all for the first time.
Full of confidence from an overwhelming Euro 2016, Iceland began their campaign positively, taking seven points from their first three fixtures.
Croatia were arguably the strongest contenders in the group, and seemingly the hardest to beat, with both games being proverbial ‘six-pointers’.
It was honours even though as both sides took the three points at home – a 90th-minute winner in Reykjavik from Bristol City’s Hordur Magnusson proving vital. A loss to Finland was followed up by a win over Ukraine as Croatia were defeated by Turkey.
With only two games remaining, Group I was far from settled. A last-gasp equaliser from Finland stole two points off the Croatian’s in Rijeka, giving Iceland a two-point cushion going into the final game after an impressive 0-3 win in Turkey.
Minnows Kosovo visited the Icelandic capital with the home side on the verge of securing the automatic spot. A 2-0 win was enough to see them over the line, sending the nation into raptures once more.
Manager Hallgrimsson named his side only a few days ago and here is how Iceland’s first ever World Cup XI may look:
Of all those in the squad, only two names will strike any sense of familiarity with Premier League fans.
Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has had a troubled, sub-par campaign on Merseyside is joined by Burnley’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who, in contrast, has been an integral part of Burnley’s top-seven league finish.
Aron Gunnarsson will also be at the top table next season after being promoted from the Championship with Cardiff City.
Birkir Bjarnason and Hordur Magnusson are names that fans in England’s second tier may recognise, as they ply their trades at Aston Villa and Bristol City, respectively. Reading’s Jon Bodvarsson also made the cut.
Key Player: Gylfi Sigurdsson
Despite having an underwhelming and sporadic season at Everton, many in Iceland will hope that talisman Gylfi Sigurdsson can hit the heights he has displayed in the past in Russia.
After moving in the summer from Swansea City, Sigurdsson has endured a rather disappointing season, which was ended early after sustaining a knee injury, that is yet to heal.
Sigurdsson’s injury may affect his ability to make an impact this summer, but he will be keen to put a poor domestic campaign behind him.
The ex-Swansea City man netted only four times last term and contributed only four assists – less than half of his output in three seasons previous.
Group Stage matchups
Iceland’s debut at the World Cup will feel like somewhat of a baptism of fire – they begin their journey against 2014 runners-up Argentina on June 16th.
The group isn’t the friendliest for Iceland as they will also face Nigeria and Croatia on the 22nd and 26th of June, respectively.
Argentina will be the favourites to emerge from Group D, but the second spot is very much up for grabs, and Iceland will fancy themselves to snatch it – and who can doubt them? Playing the South American side first may prove to be an advantage, with the ‘hardest’ fixture out of the way first.
Taking anything from the meeting with Lionel Messi and company is a tall order, but taking a point may prove vital. Against Nigeria, Iceland may well be slight favourites.
They have only ever met once before, way back in 1981, with Iceland running out 3-0 winners – hardly any sign, though, given the timeframe. A defeat to the African side will severely dent any hopes of progression.
The third and final and perhaps deciding group game comes against familiar opponents Croatia. Having duked it out for the top spot in qualifying over two years, Croatia will be eager to avenge a result which sent them through the playoff route.
There is nothing to split the two, though, with both sides having each won their home fixture.
Prediction: Group stage exit
As tough as it is to bet against Iceland’s team spirit and belief, it is difficult to see them sneaking through a very competitive group.
As much as the players, staff, fans, and country will enjoy the experience and novelty, the lack of experience at this level may prove to be a costly factor.
Iceland’s performances and results in recent years have been nothing short of remarkable, but it would be a surprise to see them still in the tournament once the group stages are over.
That being said, no one predicted them to escape their Euro 2016 group, let alone send England packing in the round of 16.
Having qualified well with consistent performances, though, it’ll be a boost to their chances, something to carry into the competition.
Their recent form, however, hasn’t been great, and they haven’t won a recognised fixture since October last year. Good performances at home to Norway and Ghana in their warm-up friendlies will be key.
It’s a tough situation to predict, but with Iceland… you never know.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group C in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.