Perišić breaks Icelandic hearts at the death

Croatia have played a big part in Iceland’s footballing history. When the tiny island nation made the play-offs for the World Cup back in 2014, it was Croatia who knocked them out and took a place in the finals instead. When Iceland sealed their passage to this World Cup, they did so at the expense of the Croatians, who were consigned to a spot in the play-offs by the determined Icelanders. Now, in Rostov-on-Don, Iceland were facing Croatia once again, knowing that only a victory over the undefeated – and already qualified – Croatians would be enough to see them through to the knockout stages in their World Cup debut. Zlatko Dalić had made nine changes to the Croatian team that smashed Argentina to seal progress to the round of 16, and Iceland seemed to have a huge opportunity. Instead, they left the game, and the tournament, heartbroken after Croatia nabbed a late winner to scupper Iceland’s dreams.

The game started slowly, with Croatia controlling possession but failing to make any inroads with their attempts to pass through Iceland’s rigid defensive wall. For their part, Iceland started slowly, but as the game progressed they began to find some brilliant chances. One of Aron Gunnarsson’s trademark long throw-ins was flicked on by Hörður Björgvin Magnússon, but Ragnar Sigurðsson couldn’t get on the end of it. Magnússon was involved again shortly afterwards, but he couldn’t hit the target despite getting his head on Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson’s corner. Gylfi Sigurðsson forced Lovre Kalinić into the first save of the game with a nicely directed free-kick. Birkir Bjarnason, looking battered after an earlier collision with Marko Pjaca, had two shots blocked in the space of a few seconds.

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Milan Badelj celebrates after opening the scoring with an excellent finish. Badelj finished with a goal and an assist, and his work had a huge impact on the final result.

The chances got better as the teams approached half time. Alfreð Finnbogason missed a golden opportunity when he won the ball and played a one-two with Gylfi Sigurðsson to find himself open and in a dangerous position. He couldn’t find the target from the edge of the box. Croatia only barely survived moments later when Bjarnason slammed a shot at an exposed Kalinić. The goalkeeper, caught out of position by his rash decision to attack a corner, only just managed to repel Bjarnason’s well-hit effort, and the ball trailed harmlessly away from the area. On the stroke of half time, Kalinić was forced into another save, batting away Gunnarsson’s well-placed strike as Iceland went into the break in a decent enough position. Then Croatia recovered.

The Croatians burst out of the blocks after half time, and they put themselves in the lead shortly after the resumption through Milan Badelj. Minutes before the goal, Badelj had nearly scored with a powerful strike that took a slight deflection off Ragnar Sigurðsson and cannoned into the bar. He wasn’t denied when he got another chance. He started it himself, playing a lofted pass towards the left wing which proceeded to bobble around the Icelandic penalty area. After sitting back and watching for a few seconds, Badelj eventually decided to join in the attack. He timed his run to perfection, and he entered the box just as Josip Pivarić’s cross bounced in his direction. With excellent technique, he bounced the ball into the top corner, leaving Hannes Þór Halldórsson with no chance.

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Gylfi Sigurðsson celebrates after levelling the scores with a well-taken penalty. The goal wasn’t enough for Iceland, as Croatia grabbed a late winner to snatch victory and eliminate their opponents.

Iceland were behind, but they weren’t going to give up. They surged forward after the goal, and nearly scored when Gunnarsson’s long throw caused chaos in the box. Kalinić needed to use all of his height to tap Sverrir Ingi Ingason’s header over the bar, after Croatia’s defence had no clue what to do with the mighty heave into the box. Ingason nearly scored again seconds later, getting his head on a corner in a brilliant position but only managing to bounce the ball off the top of the bar. Iceland kept pushing, but when Bjarnason squandered a perfect cross from a counter-attacking Finnbogason, it looked like Iceland would be denied the equaliser they so desperately craved. Then they found it. It came from a penalty, with Dejan Lovren carelessly handling the ball in the box. Gylfi Sigurðsson, who had missed a penalty against Nigeria, stepped up again, and this time he made no mistake in drilling it down the middle. Iceland were back, and had the chance to push on for a winner.

That winner never came, as Croatia reasserted their control over the fatigued Icelandic side. Ivan Perišić and Ivan Rakitić had chances after Sigurðsson’s equaliser, and there were signs that Iceland were tiring. Then, in the final seconds of normal time, Perišić delivered the killing blow. Once again, it was Badelj who created the chance, picking the pocket of the exhausted Emil Hallfreðsson and delivering a perfect through ball for Perišić. After collecting the ball in space, Perišić was just too quick, and Halldórsson’s touch wasn’t enough to stop the ball from flying into the back of the net. Iceland didn’t stop fighting, and they nearly managed to bag a very late equaliser, but they were never going to score the two they needed in the time remaining. They showed heart, but in the end they just weren’t quite good enough.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Iceland 1 (Sigurðsson 76 pen)
Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Esp)
Iceland (4-2-3-1): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Ingason, R Sigurðsson (Sigurðarson 70), Magnússon; Gunnarsson, Hallfreðsson; J Guðmundsson, G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason (Traustason 90); Finnbogason (A Guðmundsson 85).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): L Kalinić – Jedvaj, Ćorluka, Ćaleta-Car, Pivarić; Modrić (Bradarić 65), Badelj; Pjaca (Lovren 69), Kovačić (Rakitić 81), Perišić; Kramarić.

Top 5
1. Milan Badelj (Croatia)
Badelj played a key role in both goals, finishing the match with a goal and an assist in a classy midfield performance. He was able to create chances with his attacking runs from midfield, and he made a strong claim for a starting berth in Croatia’s round of 16 clash with Denmark.
2. Birkir Bjarnason (Iceland)
Bjarnason’s work rate is extraordinary, and he showed it in another strong performance. He always seems to be going full throttle, and he was able to have an impact in both attack and defence with his hard efforts down the left flank. He had a few great chances, and came very close to grabbing a goal.
3. Vedran Ćorluka (Croatia)
Ćorluka came into the team as part of a new-look Croatian defence, and used all of his experience to repel some of Iceland’s most dangerous attacks. He was solid in the air and always positioned himself well to win the ball, and he could well earn a starting spot with his excellent performance.
4. Mateo Kovačić (Croatia)
Kovačić was heavily involved as Croatia dominated possession, working well with Luka Modrić and weaving into space very effectively. He continued to find small pockets of space in the Icelandic defence, and he always looked threatening when he had the ball at his feet.
5. Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Iceland)
Ingason was unlucky not to score with a pair of close-range headers just after Iceland went behind, and he did very well to hold the defence together when Ragnar Sigurðsson was substituted in pursuit of goals. He was responsible for some excellent pieces of defensive work, and can take pride in his solid performance.

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.