21:00 BST, Saturday 2nd June, Laugardalsvollur (Reykjavik, Iceland)
The nation with the smallest population -340,000- to ever qualify for the World Cup, the Strakarnir Okkar are looking to build on their stunning run to the 2016 European Championship quarter-finals.
With a tough World Cup group, boasting Lionel Messi’s 2014 runners-up, a familiar foe in Croatia and the consistently dangerous Nigeria, Iceland will need more than their supporters’ enthusiastic thunder clap to make the knockout round on the world’s biggest stage.
Norway were a distant fourth in their World Cup qualifying campaign, only winning four out of ten games, two of which came against minnows San Marino.
Lars Lagerback, who stepped down from his joint Iceland role with Heimir Hallgrimsson after the Euros, took over Norway midway through qualifying in February 2017 and has won half of his six matches in charge.
Last Time Out
Iceland 1-3 Peru
Iceland’s two-match tour through the United States ended with a loss as fellow World Cup side Peru scored twice in the second half at the Red Bull Stadium in New Jersey.
Hallgrimsson made seven changes to his starting XI from their 3-0 loss to Mexico five days prior, and Strakarnir Okkar fell behind after just two minutes Renato Tarpir scored from six yards following poor marking from a free kick.
Iceland pulled level just before the half-hour mark when defender Jon Guoni Fjoluson powered home a header from inside six yards on a corner kick, but second-choice ‘keeper Frederik August Schram conceded a Raul Ruidiaz goal from a tight angle before being wrong-footed on a deflection Jefferson Farfan shot.
Albania 0-1 Norway
The Drillos followed up their 4-1 victory over World Cup-bound Australia with a 1-0 away win against Albania.
Defender Sigurd Rosted headed home a corner kick from close range in the 70th minute.
Lagerback made six changes to his starting XI from the one that beat the Socceroos, with No. 2 keeper Orjan Nyland keeping a clean sheet.
Norway extended their overall winning streak to four matches, dating back to their last two World Cup qualifying game.
Without both Gylfi Sigurdsson and team captain Aron Gunnarsson, who are sidelined through injury, Iceland can use a 4-4-2 formation instead of their usual 4-4-1-1. Alfred Finnbogason likely will fulfil the role of target man up top, with Bjorn Sigurdarson in support.
Lagerback will probably also opt for a 4-4-2 lineup as he continues to build for the future. In defence, that means another start for 20-year-old Kristoffer Ajer in front of first-choice keeper Rune Jarstein.
Martin Odegaard, a 19-year-old midfielder Real Madrid loaned out to Dutch side Heerenveen this season, is part of a promising group that includes Basel’s Mohamed Elyounoussi and talisman Stefan Johansen, who just helped Fulham win promotion back to the Premier League.
Key Battle: Sigurdarson & Finnbogason vs Ajer & Nordtvelt
Iceland will likely rely on counterattacks to score goals in Russia, and with the omission of striker Kolbeinn Sigporsson from the 23-man squad, pending finalisation, Sigurdarson and Finnbogason will have to make sure the industry of their defence and midfielders is rewarded when those chances arise.
Ajer was a regular fixture in treble-winning Celtic’s starting XI, and Nordtveit, who plays for German side Hoffenheim 1899, is the most-capped member of Norway’s backline with 39 international appearances.
Norway have conceded just one goal in their four straight wins, and this potential central defence pairing could be something Lagerback can build on for the future.
Can Iceland create without Sigurdsson?
The biggest concern for Hallgrimsson is the health of playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since March, but has practised with the team this week, though his availability remains uncertain.
Without Sigurdsson, creativity will have to stem from the flanks, with Burnley midfielder Johann Berg Gudmundsson the most likely source of crosses into the box.
Based on Gudmundsson’s strong showing in the Premier League, it’s fair to suggest that he can go some distance in filling Sigurdsson’s shoes.
For example, in eight more appearances than his compatriot, the Burnley winger assisted seven goals -four more than Sigurdsson- and created 35 more chances, chipping in with two goals, too.
Iceland, however, looked out of their depth without the Everton star in their North American friendlies, and this match will be a good test to see what Gudmundsson can provide offensively, as well as how Iceland can attack if they need to go wide without Sigurdsson.
The current Norway boss will undoubtedly get a warm reception in his return to the dugout in Reykjavík.
Without Lagerback, Iceland’s first World Cup appearance likely would not have taken place, as it was he who set the foundations upon his arrival in 2011.
This is the culmination of a six-year process that suffered the heartbreak of missing the 2014 World Cup after a playoff loss to Croatia, before the euphoria of their European adventure two years later.
Norway building for the future
In looking at Lagerback’s squad for this match and their next friendly versus Panama, there will be some growing pains for what could be a talented, but very inexperienced midfield, where no player is older than 27 and six are 23 or younger.
How this group comes together over the summer and in the inaugural Nations League could go a long way in determining if Norway will end a top-tier international tournament drought that dates back to the 2000 European Championship.
Prediction: Iceland 1-1 Norway
While Iceland need a win in one of their friendlies to gain confidence ahead of their trip to Russia, this seems like an even contest serving as a means of fine-tuning for the Iceland boss.
Iceland tend to operate on the back foot more often than not and this affair, as a result, will be cagey with few goals.
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