Euro 2016: Iceland Preview

Having never qualified for a major tournament in their history as a nation, Iceland can consider it a substantial achievement simply to have made it to Euro 2016 in France this summer.

That said, with a favourable group draw, there is no suggestion that Lars Lagerback’s side will be resting on their laurels in France. Indeed, with Portugal, Hungary and Austria to play, Iceland will consider there to be every chance that they could push for a second place finish in their group and put up a fight in the knock-out stage.

Euro 2016: Iceland Preview

How they qualified:


It could be argued that Iceland’s qualifying group for the tournament was more difficult to negotiate than the group they have at Euro 2016 itself.

With Turkey, Netherlands and the Czech Republic among the teams to beat, few bookmakers gave Iceland a chance of qualifying.

However, impressive wins at home to Turkey (3-0) , the Czechs (2-1) and Holland (2-0) were added to by a 1-0 victory in Amsterdam and a consistently strong record in away games against the lesser teams, Latvia and Kazakhstan, meant that Iceland reached France with two games to spare.

How they will line up:

Iceland tend to opt for a 4-4-2 formation, and will undoubtedly be heavily reliant on the midfield duo of Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson and Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Their keeper, Ogmundur Kristinsson, has had a tough start to the Allsvenskan season this year, but his well-drilled back four of club team-mate Birkir Sævarsson, Kari Arnason, Ragnar Sigurdsson and Ari Skulason proved in qualifying that they are a competent defending unit.

Gunnarsson, capped 58 times, will anchor the midfield, with Sigurdsson – the side’s top scorer in qualifying with six goals – will play a similar role to his one at Swansea as a creator.

Out wide, Charlton’s Johann Gudmundsson and Basel’s Birkir Bjarnason tend to sit deeper than most wingers, relying on their high work-rates and defensive abilities to get into the side, but the pair have nearly 100 international caps between them. Clearly, Iceland rely on a tried and tested side rather than constantly making changes, which has worked exceptionally well over the past couple of years.

Kolbeinn Sigþórsson is likely to lead the line despite a thoroughly underwhelming Ligue 1 season with Nantes, and will be partnered by either Jon Bodvarsson of FC Kaiserslautern or Alfred Finnbogason, who scored seven goals in his fifteen appearances on loan at Augsburg this season.

It is also worth looking out for Eidur Gudjohnsen at this tournament. The veteran striker is now 37 years old and playing for Molde – somewhat less glamorous than Chelsea or Barcelona – but scored in a recent friendly defeat to Norway, and remains a goalscoring threat coming off the bench.

Despite a lack of star names, Iceland are a well-drilled side, as shown by the fact they conceded just six goals in ten qualifying fixtures. It will be their lack of attacking threat that might derail their ambitions at the tournament, so Lagerback will be praying that one of his striking options can put together a spell of form in the coming weeks.

 

Tournament pedigree:

Along with Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Wales and Albania, Iceland are one of five sides who will be appearing in their first ever European Championships this summer.

It is a sign of their progress that in the qualifying tournament for Euro 2012, Iceland picked up only four points in eight games, with both of those coming against minnows Cyprus.

However, in 2013, they only narrowly missed out on the 2014 World Cup, with a 2-0 aggregate loss to Croatia in the play-offs after finishing below Switzerland in their qualifying group.

Verdict:

Thanks to the new format of the European Championships, in which only eight teams out of 24 are eliminated at the group stage, Iceland have a fantastic chance to reach the knock-out stages at their first ever major world tournament.

Their first game, against Portugal in Saint-Etienne, will be a tough challenge, but if they can pick up three points against Hungary four days later, there is every chance that the final group game, against Austria, will be a straight shoot-out for the second round.

A third-placed finish in the group would almost certainly lead to a tough challenge against Spain in the round of 16, but if Iceland were to come second in Group F, they would play the runners-up of Group B – likely to be either Russia or Wales – and have every chance of making the quarter-finals.

Overall, Iceland can head into the tournament with little pressure on them. Expectations will be low, but a couple of good performances could propel them to an unlikely quarter-final; Lagerback’s men are not to be taken likely.