This knockout stage has seen a number of fairy-tale runs nipped off at the bud, with losses to both of the Irish sides and a big loss to the so-called ‘Magical Magyars’ of Hungary. It looked as if Iceland would be going a similar way for a short period at the Allianz Riviera. The fact that Iceland are even at this tournament is remarkable, and with a population of just over 330,000 people their qualification was greeted with huge celebrations. They came up against Portugal and put in a disciplined performance to hold them to a draw. They would have beaten Hungary but for an 88th minute own goal. Arnor Ingvi Traustason scored with the last kick of the game against Austria to win them the match and send them through to the round of 16 as they claimed second place in their group. There they were to face England, a considerably bigger island nation with a population of just over 54 million. It was a group of players playing in the most profitable league in the world against a team made up of players scattered throughout Scandinavia and the English lower leagues.
Iceland conceded first after they gave away an early penalty. Hannes Halldorsson, who plays for a Norwegian club facing a relegation battle, took out Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling in the box after a good ball from Daniel Sturridge. Wayne Rooney, the English captain, lined up to take the kick, and while Halldorsson dived the right way he could not keep it out. The fairy-tale looked to be coming to a close. Iceland had to find a way to score, and England had them on the back foot.
But, like they have been doing all tournament, they found a way. The ball went out of play in a position not normally considered dangerous. Iceland are not a normal team, however. Aron Gunnarsson, who plays for Cardiff City and is the leader of the Icelandic team, trotted over to take the throw. Up came the centre backs, and Kari Arnason and Ragnar Sigurdsson left their posts to add some height to the attack. Gunnarsson ran back and heaved the ball in to the box, where it found the head of Arnason. The Malmo centre back flicked it on, and Ragnar Sigurdsson found his way into a great position to volley into the bottom corner. Iceland were level again, less than two minutes after going behind.
The game had begun with a flurry of activity, but it began to slow down somewhat. England had some good chances through Tottenham Hotspur pair Dele Alli and Harry Kane, but while they had the supremacy their attack was sluggish and they did not look like breaking through. Then Iceland scored again. They tapped the ball around on the edge of the box while England waited, watching. First Gylfi Sigurdsson, the side’s best player, tapped it to Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, who flicked it on for Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Sigthorsson had room to shoot, and while Hart got a hand to his attempt he could not stop it from trailing into the back of the net.
England looked desperate, but they were disorganised and were unable to break down the disciplined Icelandic defence. Halldorsson made some great saves, denying Kane when he found his way into a dangerous position and generally cleaning up anything which the defence missed. The Bodo/Glimt goalkeeper was not being forced to do much, however, as the English attack lacked unity and cohesion. This was one of the first times they had played from behind all tournament, and they didn’t like it. They didn’t like it one bit. Iceland could still find some freedom, and Hart was forced to make an excellent save to deny Ragnar Sigurdsson’s bicycle kick, which was well struck from close range. It would have sealed the match for Iceland, but England survived. They kept pushing for an equaliser, but their chances simply failed to materialise. Alli was in a great position to score, but the ball sailed over the goals. Jamie Vardy, brought on far too late by now-departed English manager Roy Hodgson, was played through. He was in a great position, but Ragnar Sigurdsson made a brilliant tackle to stop him. England tried an aerial attack, and Kane had a great chance, but his header was weak and easily collected by Halldorsson.
No matter what England tried it was not going to work. Iceland looked calm and did not panic, while England were the ones feeling the heat. Halldorsson made a mistake when he came out prematurely to Kane’s injury time corner, but Alli bungled the chance with the last touch of the game. The whistle blew, and it was all over. Iceland’s fairy-tale run continues, and they will face the French in the quarter-finals. They are under no more pressure, and their brilliant system could get them a long way.
Nice – Allianz Riviera
England 1 (Rooney 4 pen)
Iceland 2 (R Sigurdsson 6, Sigthorsson 18)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
England: Hart – Walker, Cahill, Smalling, Rose; Alli, Dier (Wilshere 46), Rooney (Rashford 87); Sturridge, Kane, Sterling (Vardy 60).
Iceland: Halldorsson – Saevarsson, Arnason, R Sigurdsson, Skulason; Gudmundsson, G Sigurdsson, Gunnarsson, B Bjarnason; Sigthorsson (E Bjarnason 77), Bodvarsson (Traustason 89).
1. Ragnar Sigurdsson (Iceland)
Sigurdsson had a great game, and he scored the equaliser for Iceland after England failed to deal with a long throw. His defensive work after Iceland took the lead was key, and his brilliant slide tackle on Jamie Vardy stopped England from getting one-on-one with Halldorsson. He nearly scored again after the break with a bicycle kick, and he was clearly the best player on the field.
2. Aron Gunnarsson (Iceland)
Gunnarsson’s long throws proved to be a significant problem for the English defence, who were unable to deal with them. The Icelandic captain was solid in the middle of the park, and he nearly scored on the break when he found himself one-on-one with Hart. He was booked, but he played well and looks to be in good touch.
3. Dele Alli (England)
Alli was able to find plenty of the ball throughout the night, and he was let down by his teammates’ inability to get into good positions. He had some excellent chances, and had his early long-range strike been on target he would have come very close to scoring. He played well, and was England’s best on the night.
4. Birkir Saevarsson (Iceland)
Saevarsson was excellent at right back, stopping plenty of English attacks with his solid tackling. He blocked plenty of shots and crosses, and he was at the top of his game. He had an excellent chance in the second half with his overlapping run down the right-edge, and he was a key factor in Iceland’s solidity at the back.
5. Hannes Halldorsson (Iceland)
Halldorsson gave away an early penalty, and while he was unable to save it he came very close. He made plenty of key saves as Iceland looked to hold on, and his positioning was excellent throughout. He made a minor error as Iceland defended the last corner of the game, but it did not prove to be costly and he will take plenty of confidence from the win.