Iceland show that miracles can happen

Sometimes, in the relatively predictable world of international football, it can feel as if big upsets just don’t happen anymore. It can feel as if the day has long passed where a minnow can come up against a powerhouse with a win, and even a draw is considered remarkable. Yet Iceland have shown that upsets are still possible, and with one well-taken volley from Birkir Bjarnason they came from behind against Portugal to snatch a 1-1 draw in Saint-Etienne.

Such was the excitement that surrounded Iceland’s qualification that many in the country lobbied for a public holiday coinciding with the clash with the Portuguese. This was their first ever game at the finals of a major tournament, and they were out to prove that they were good enough. Iceland had one of the best chances of the game within five minutes, when their star, Gylfi Sigurdsson, broke through the Portuguese defence. Rui Patricio was ready, and he saved both the first attempt and the follow-up volley. From that point on it was all Portugal. They controlled possession, and Iceland let them keep the ball while covering them in an organised manner. Lars Lagerback had them well-drilled defensively, and there was no easy way to break down their formation. It was clear from the outset that Portugal were going to have to work very hard for this one.

They had plenty of opportunities. Nani was very dangerous, drifting around in the front third, and he should have scored when Cristiano Ronaldo delivered him a perfect cross. His header was agonisingly close, but Hannes Halldorsson was able to get a foot to it and keep it out. Ronaldo was able to find space in the box for a header, but his effort went wide. A long ball over the Icelandic defence saw Ronaldo one-on-one with Halldorsson, but the Real Madrid star could not connect with the ball. Finally, all the territory and possession paid off. Andre Gomes took two touches; one to play the ball to Vierinha out wide, and a first-time cross after receiving the ball again to set up Nani with a perfectly placed cross. Nani took advantage of the space he had been allowed, and Halldorsson never had a chance.

After Nani found the back of the net Iceland’s chances of an equaliser looked slim, to say the least. Their spirit did not dissipate, however, and shortly after half-time they had picked up a leveller against the run of play. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson was able to make his way into the corner with the ball, and he cut it back for Johann Gudmundsson on the wing. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson drew the defence away from Bjarnason, and Gudmundsson found him with precision. With one touch Birkir Bjarnason made history by scoring Iceland’s first ever goal at the finals of a major tournament, volleying the ball past a helpless Patricio into the bottom corner.

Portugal were desperate to score again, and minor mistakes started to come into their game. Nani looked like scoring again after Halldorsson was unable to hold Vierinha’s cross, but he could not control the ball and it was scooped up gratefully by the Icelandic keeper. Iceland still had the occasional chance, but for the most part they were sitting back, willing to absorb the Portuguese pressure. Portugal should have scored when Raphael Guerreiro’s free kick was flicked on by the ever-dangerous Nani. Halldorsson had no chance, but the header was just wide. Ricardo Quaresma, risked as a substitute despite a hamstring concern, had his shot deflected towards goal, but Halldorsson parried it away for a corner. Pepe had a golden opportunity after Quaresma’s corner, but he could not find the target. Portugal continued to push, and were increasingly desperate.

Ronaldo’s impact had been fairly subdued all day, but he was turned to in the last few minutes as Portugal tried to fall back on their star to bail them out. It wasn’t going to happen. Ronaldo had a brilliant chance when he found himself presented with a straightforward header, but Halldorsson didn’t let it through, making an exceptional reflex save. Guerreiro targeted him with a cross from range, but Kari Arnason would not let it get through. In the end it was Ronaldo who had the last kick of the game, a free kick from 24 metres out. It was a distance that he had scored from many times before, but the Icelandic wall was too solid. The ball rebounded off the wall, referee Cuneyt Cakir blew his whistle and all of Iceland rejoiced. The game finished at 1-1, but it will have the same value as a win in the smallest nation at the Euros. On this night, they fought admirably, and only the most partisan Portuguese supporter would deny Iceland their chance to celebrate.

Stade Geoffroy-Guichard – Saint-Etienne
Portugal 1 (Nani 31)
Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Tur)

Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Vierinha, R Carvalho, Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro; Joao Mario (Ricardo Quaresma 76), Danilo, Joao Moutinho (Renato Sanches 71), Andre Gomes (Eder 84); Nani, Ronaldo.
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldorsson – Saevarsson, R Sigurdsson, Arnason, Skulason; Gudmundsson (T Bjarnason 90), Gunnarsson, G Sigurdsson, B Bjarnason; Sigthorsson (Finnbogason 81), Bodvarsson.

Top 5
1. Nani (Portugal)
Nani was Portugal’s only scorer, and he was the most dangerous player on the pitch. He had many great chances, and he was able to find space against the disciplined Icelandic defence by shifting from left to right depending on where the ball was. His goal just past the half-hour mark was a quality finish, and he looked like a threat when many of his teammates didn’t.
2. Hannes Halldorsson (Iceland)
Halldorsson played the game of his life in goal, and he made numerous saves to keep out Nani, Ronaldo and anyone else who challenged him. He made some extraordinary saves, and his ability to deny the Portuguese when they shot from point-blank range proved vital in the end. Halldorsson was at the top of his game, and was the main reason Iceland were so solid defensively.
3. Andre Gomes (Portugal)
Gomes set up Nani for Portugal’s only goal with two excellent touches, and his work on both wings made life difficult for Iceland’s fullbacks. He was substituted late in the piece as Fernando Santos looked for more attackers, but he was one of Portugal’s best and looks in good form for the rest of the tournament.
4. Birkir Bjarnason (Iceland)
Bjarnason scored Iceland’s goal, and his work on the left edge was strong in both attack and defence. He was booked for an unnecessary challenge shortly after he scored, but his effort was top-class and he was Iceland’s biggest danger in attack. He was able to find plenty of space on the break, and his crosses from the left wing caused plenty of issues for Portugal.
5. Raphael Guerreiro (Portugal)
Guerreiro played at left back, and while he did not need to do much defensive work he was very threatening in attack and his crossing in open play and from set pieces was excellent. He provided plenty of chances for the players up front, and he was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing game for Portugal.

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