21:00 BST, Thursday 7th June, Laugardalsvollur (Reykjavik, Iceland)
Iceland continue their World Cup preparations against Ghana after having lost their last international friendly in disappointing circumstances.
Although Iceland had welcomed the return of attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson – who provided a short-lived 2-1 lead in the 70th minute – he was not able to prevent the World Cup debutantes from enduring a 3-2 loss to former co-coach Lars Lagerback and Norway at home Saturday.
The Everton star, who had been sidelined since mid-March with a knee injury, entered the game as a substitute in the 63rd minute and scored from a delicate chip over Norway keeper Rune Jarstein.
The 27-minute performance eased the fears of manager Heimir Hallgrimsson who had included Sigurdsson on the 23-man roster three weeks prior.
Hallgrimsson made no changes to the group which was formalised Monday, meaning there was no place for forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, a key part of Iceland’s run to the 2016 Euro quarterfinals.
This will be Iceland’s first match against an African nation since beating South Africa 1-0 in a friendly in 2009. Their second game of group play is against Nigeria on June 22 in Volgograd.
Ghana, who will miss the World Cup for the first time since 2002, spoiled the start of Japan’s preparations for Russia with a 2-0 victory in Yokohama on May 30. The Black Stars got goals from Thomas Partey and Emmanuel Boateng on either side of halftime with Boateng converting from the spot in the 51st minute.
It was the sixth goal in the last five international appearances for Partey with the Atletico Madrid midfielder also serving as Ghana’s captain for the first time.
Coach Kwesi Appiah is using these matches to piece together a roster for upcoming African Cup of Nations qualifying which begins in September against Kenya.
The Black Stars, who finished third in the qualifying group Egypt emerged from, are unbeaten in their last five matches with two victories and three draws.
After coming through his half-hour stint unscathed, look for Gylfi Sigurdsson to be returned to the starting XI and get at least 45 minutes of action.
Hannes Halldorsson is also expected to play after being rested for the loss to Norway due to injury with Hallgrimsson taking a cautious approach with his first-choice keeper.
Captain Aron Gunnarsson is expected to receive some playing time after spending last week in Qatar to receive treatment for a knee injury. He’ll replace Emil Hallfredsson in the central midfield.
Kwesi Appiah is not likely to make many changes to the lineup that played well against Japan, but he is expected to have midfielder Afriyie Acquah available for this match after he missed the previous match due to a dispute over appearance fees for these friendlies.
Wakaso Mubarak also missed the contest versus Japan because of this row and it is uncertain if he will be in Reykjavík.
Key Players: Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Iceland) vs Thomas Partey (Ghana)
As Sigurdsson works his way back to match fitness, the Burnley midfielder will be the key to Iceland’s attack with his lethal left foot.
Given Ghana’s physical play, Gudmundsson will be an important release valve to start Iceland’s counterattacks, playing a vital role in his country’s set pieces along with Sigurdsson.
Partey is being touted as a potential future captain of the Black Stars and he appears ready to take the next step in a burgeoning career that saw him help Atletico Madrid return to the Champions League for next season by winning the Europa League title.
His goal against Japan came on a well-taken free kick on a slick pitch in Yokohama and he will get a good test in a well-drilled and disciplined Iceland side.
How healthy are Sigurdsson and Gunnarsson?
While there was a sense of relief in seeing Iceland’s number ten back on the pitch, having him play extended minutes in this send-off match would further relieve some nerves.
The same holds true for Aron Gunnarsson, the Cardiff City man who has not appeared for the national team since Iceland’s 3-0 loss to Mexico in March.
Heimir Hallgrimsson will be feeling a little nervous that two of his key players are not at 100% fitness and much of the Icelanders’ success will depend on whether these injuries can be staved off through the competition.
Are Acquah and Mubarak back in Appiah’s good graces?
Of Afriyie Acquah and Wakaso Mubarak, it seems Acquah is further along in the reconciliation process with their coach, Kwesi Appiah.
Acquah did make every effort to join the team in Japan after having a change of heart about the reduction in appearance fees but could not find a flight in time.
442gh.com reported Acquah would join the team in Reykjavik from Holland in order to be available for this match.
Mubarak, who appears ready to move on from Spanish club side Deportivo Alaves, reportedly joined the team a day after their arrival in Iceland on Saturday from Accra.
Prediction: Iceland 1-1 Ghana
Iceland desperately need a win before the World Cup, having lost three friendlies in a row, going back to their trip to North America in March.
However, they will find Ghana a tricky prospect. Expect the Ghanians to make life hard for the Icelanders and the game to crawl to a draw.
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