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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Devastating Musa brings Iceland crashing back to earth

Gylfi Sigurðsson looked calm as he stepped up to the penalty spot. The pressure was on, and as he stepped up to take the kick, awarded after Tyronne Ebuehi’s late challenge on Alfreð Finnbogason, Sigurðsson was carrying the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. Iceland had gone into their clash with Nigeria brimming with confidence after they held Argentina on World Cup debut, and against a Nigerian side coming off a poor first-up display they seemed to be in with a good chance of notching a historic win. It hadn’t turned out that way. Ahmed Musa had run riot and collected two goals, and Sigurðsson’s penalty was shaping as their only hope of getting some kind of result. He blasted it over the bar, ending Iceland’s chances of a remarkable comeback and breaking the hearts of a nation in the process. The penalty had given Iceland hope of a miracle. The miss emphatically extinguished it.

The first half was an interesting one, with Nigeria dominating possession but failing to even take a shot, and Iceland sitting back but managing to create all of the half’s dangerous opportunities. It was Sigurðsson, Iceland’s main midfield creator, who took the early initiative. He forced Francis Uzoho into a tough save with a well-placed free-kick, and followed up a few minutes later by working his way into space and testing the young goalkeeper once again. Nigeria settled after Iceland’s fast start, but they couldn’t create any opportunities against Iceland’s typically staunch defence. The penalty-saving hero against Argentina, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, had absolutely nothing to do, and Iceland looked to be in a decent position.

Embed from Getty Images

Icelandic fans perform their trademark Viking Thunderclap in the stands of the Volgograd Arena. It was a disappointing result for Iceland, but the famous celebration was as loud as ever.

They started to find more chances as the half drew to a close. Birkir Már Sævarsson played a dangerous ball into the box, but Leon Balogun’s slight touch kept Birkir Bjarnason and Jón Daði Böðvarsson from getting on the end of it. Finnbogason got close when he connected with Sigurðsson’s free kick directly in front of goal, but he didn’t get a solid enough touch on the ball to bundle it into the back of the net. Iceland continued to threaten in first half injury time, but they couldn’t provide any further challenge to Uzoho’s goal. When the half time whistle blew, Iceland were on top. When the teams came back out after the interval, things began to turn.

Nigeria came out firing after half time, and Iceland got caught out by a lightning Nigerian counter-attack less than four minutes after the resumption. Left-back Hörður Björgvin Magnússon was caught out by Victor Moses, who spread quickly into space and had time to cross it into the centre. The ball found Ahmed Musa, whose first touch was brilliant. Expecting the ball to keep travelling towards the back post, Ragnar Sigurðsson was wrong-footed when Musa tapped it the other way, giving the dynamic striker the space he needed to slam it into the back of the net. Suddenly, Iceland were behind, and Sigurðsson lay on the ground after taking a blow to the head in Musa’s follow-through. The centre-back returned with a fluorescent pink bandage strapped around the afflicted area. Unlike Sigurðsson, Iceland’s best football never resurfaced.

Things didn’t look good for Iceland in the minutes after the goal. Nigeria continued to knock the ball around with confidence, aware that Iceland weren’t putting them under pressure when they had the ball and equally aware that they held all the cards. Moses was beginning to make Iceland’s defenders nervous with his pace and skill on the right, and Iceland weren’t creating the chances they did in the first half. Their play was flat, and they needed a spark that didn’t seem to be coming. Then Musa scored the second, and seemingly killed off their chances.

Embed from Getty Images

Ahmed Musa (right) competes for the ball against Hörður Björgvin Magnússon. Musa’s brilliant second half dismantled Iceland’s defence and allowed Nigeria to take a comfortable win.

It had been coming. Seconds before he doubled the Super Eagles’ advantage, the rapid striker rammed a thunderous shot into the bar, and although Iceland survived it was clear that they were under the pump. When Iceland’s players were committed to the attack, Musa struck. The ball was bombed out of defence, and Musa left Kari Árnason in the dust as he pursued it in behind. When Halldórsson came to meet him, Musa eluded the desperate clutches of the keeper with his incredible speed, and found himself faced with an open goal. Sverrir Ingi Ingason, on after Ragnar Sigurðsson was finally substituted, stood on the goal line but couldn’t do a thing as Musa’s composed finish found the top corner.

Iceland tried to reduce the deficit, but there just seemed to be something missing. Passes just didn’t quite hit the target, and their moves didn’t quite come off. The award of the penalty had momentarily put some wind back in their sails, but as their star missed the team seemed to deflate, limping over the finish line against a confident Nigerian team who never looked like giving up their lead. In recent times, Iceland have made a name for themselves with their incredible discipline and ability to recover from seemingly any setback. Now, coming off the heights of their incredible World Cup debut with the weight of expectations on their shoulders, they just couldn’t match it when Nigeria put everything together. For once, they suffered a blow from which they couldn’t recover.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Nigeria 2 (Musa 49, 75)
Iceland 0
Referee: Matthew Conger (NZ)
Nigeria (3-5-2): Uzoho – Omeruo, Troost-Ekong, Balogun; Moses, Etebo (Iwobi 90), Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu (Ebuehi 46); Musa, Iheanacho (Ighalo 85).
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Árnason, R Sigurðsson (Ingason 65), Magnússon; Gíslason, Gunnarson (A Skúlason 87), G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Böðvarsson (Sigurðarson 71), Finnbogason.

Top 5
1. Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)
When he had room to run, Musa’s pace was terrifying, and when it was coupled with excellent touch and good finishing the striker became a lethal attacking force for the Super Eagles. He finished with two thoroughly deserved goals, and he will come into their key match with Argentina full of confidence.
2. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses started the second half with pace and purpose, creating Nigeria’s first goal with an excellent cross and keeping Iceland on the back foot with his ability to make an impact cutting in from the right wing. He has been in great form at this tournament, and will be looking to keep it up.
3. Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)
Ndidi was heavily involved in defensive midfield, working well with John Obi Mikel and Oghenekaro Etebo to shield the back four and make life very difficult for Iceland’s attackers. He even managed to make something of a contribution to the attack, forcing Halldórsson into a tough save with a dangerous shot from distance.
4. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Iceland)
Penalty miss aside, Sigurðsson had a strong game. He looked like the only Icelandic player capable of creating his own opportunities, and he gave Uzoho a stern test on a few occasions. He will be disappointed with his late penalty miss, and it’s unfortunate that one error will define an otherwise strong performance.
5. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)
Etebo knows how to run, and he did plenty of hard work transitioning between defence – where he did the bulk of his good work – and attack. His energy was impressive throughout, and it’s no coincidence that he was the only other Nigerian player in the box for both of Musa’s goals.

Halldórsson the hero as Iceland match Argentina

Compare the pair. On the one hand, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, goalkeeper for Iceland and Randers FC (second bottom in the Danish Superliga) and amateur filmmaker. On the other, Lionel Messi, arguably the best footballer in the world and star for Argentina and Spanish champions Barcelona. The disparity in their career CVs is so ridiculous that you wouldn’t foresee the two players ever meeting on a football field. In Moscow, at the World Cup, that meeting took place, and 64 minutes into Iceland’s maiden tournament appearance Messi stood at the penalty spot with only Halldórsson standing in his way. Iceland had fought hard, but it was inevitable that Messi would score to put Argentina ahead 2-1. Messi drilled his penalty to the left, into an almost unstoppable position. Halldórsson followed, flinging himself across goal to parry the ball out and keep the scores level. They remained level for the rest of the game.

It’s not like the South American giants were short of time on the ball, as their opponents invited them to knock the ball around in attack. Iceland’s team, made up of players from lower-level European clubs and coached by a part-time dentist, didn’t seem to care when they conceded a ridiculous amount of possession, or when Argentina played five times as many passes as they did. All they cared about was structure: their rigid 4-4-2 formation was held together with extraordinary discipline, and Argentinian attackers were flooded by defenders if they got into a position deemed too dangerous. Then they hit Argentina on the break, and looked infinitely more threatening against a spread out and structureless defensive unit. When Birkir Bjarnason received – and missed – a golden chance after one such break, it should have served as a warning to the South Americans.

Embed from Getty Images

Hannes Þór Halldórsson saves Lionel Messi’s penalty at a key moment in the match. Halldórsson made a string of brilliant saves in a best-on-ground performance that allowed Iceland to get a draw.

Even still, Iceland’s attack wasn’t quite frequent enough to trouble their opposition, and when Argentina hit the front less than 20 minutes in, they could have been forgiven for thinking the hard work was done. It was Sergio Agüero who provided the goal with a classy turn and an unstoppable left foot shot into the top corner, showing the elegance, class and skill Iceland sorely lacked in comparison to their more highly-rated opposition. Yet anyone writing off Iceland missed one crucial detail: the Icelanders know how to fight, and fight they did.

The goal came less than five minutes later, courtesy of Alfreð Finnbogason. It was Iceland’s one true star, Gylfi Sigurðsson, who started it, gliding into the box and firing a powerful shot at Willy Caballero. That may have been all, had it not been for Bjarnason. With his long golden hair flapping around behind him, the physically imposing winger poked a foot in, and under duress the Argentinian keeper could only parry it out. It only went as far as Finnbogason, who had no problems stroking the ball into an open goal to send Iceland into raucous celebrations. With the deficit wiped out, Iceland could go back to their massed defence, and they continued their cycle of repelling all Argentina had to throw at them. The Argentinians had a lot to throw.

Ángel Di María attempted to bamboozle unspectacular right-back Birkir Már Sævarsson on the left wing. Sævarsson knew exactly where he needed to be, and remained completely unbamboozled. The rest of the defence was similarly solid. Open shooters were closed down, and referee Szymon Marciniak repeatedly turned down Argentinian appeals for penalties as Iceland’s defenders imposed themselves physically. With a different referee, Messi may well have had five or six chances from the spot. With Marciniak, he just had the one, emanating from a Horður Björgvin Magnússon shove on Maximiliano Meza.

Embed from Getty Images

Lionel Messi shows his frustration during his poor individual performance. Messi had a penalty saved, and couldn’t find enough space to present a real danger.

Messi’s frustrating day came to represent the plight his teammates were in. He couldn’t get himself into dangerous positions, especially when eight or nine defenders seemed to be in the immediate vicinity every time he got near the box. Shots went slightly wide, and three free-kicks from scoring range failed to make their mark as Messi hit them either too high or too low. In the end, Messi had 11 shots. None of them made their way past Halldórsson, who was playing the game of his life.

By the end, Iceland’s counter-attacking threat was non-existent as their tired players did all they could to keep Argentina out. It didn’t make a difference, as Argentina’s one-dimensional attack couldn’t break through the mass of bodies blocking their path at every turn. Only Cristian Pavón was smart enough to use the space offered on the flanks, but his 20-minute cameo wasn’t enough. Fittingly, the last kick of the game went to Messi, who had a free kick in scoring range. He blasted the gettable free-kick straight into the Icelandic wall, before booting the ball into the air in frustration as the final whistle sounded. It was just that kind of day.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Argentina 1 (Agüero 19)
Iceland 1 (Finnbogason 23)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Pol)
Argentina (4-2-3-1): Caballero – Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Mascherano, Biglia (Banega 54); Meza (Higuaín 84), Messi, Di María (Pavón 75); Agüero.
Iceland (4-5-1): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Árnason, R Sigurðsson, Magnússon; Guðmundsson (Gíslason 63), Gunnarson (A Skúlason 76), G Sigurðsson, Hallfreðsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason (Sigurðarson 89).

Top 5
1. Hannes Þór Halldórsson (Iceland)
When Messi stepped up to take a second-half penalty, Iceland seemed destined to go behind. It was not to be thanks to the brilliance of Halldórsson, who threw himself the right way and parried the penalty away harmlessly. It was undoubtedly the biggest save of his career, and was one of many memorable stops in a stunning World Cup debut.
2. Emil Hallfreðsson (Iceland)
Hallfreðsson was on top of his game in the middle of the park, cutting off plenty of attacks and working as hard as anyone on the field. He was one of the key players in curbing Messi’s impact on the game, and his fierce attack on the ball ensured he was a handy person to have around as Argentina looked to play their way through. His defensive performance was brilliant.
3. Sergio Agüero (Argentina)
Agüero managed to work his way into dangerous positions throughout, and his finish to give Argentina an early lead was top class. He made the tough left foot shot seem like child’s play, and he continued to be his side’s most dangerous attacker for the rest of the game. Like Messi, he found it tough against Iceland’s stoic defence, but he deserves credit for getting himself on the scoreboard.
4. Birkir Már Sævarsson (Iceland)
Sævarsson had a tough job marking Ángel Di María on Argentina’s left wing, but he performed so well that Di María was substituted so someone else could have a go. He never got beaten on the dribble, and his ability to stay between his opponent and the goals thwarted a large part of Di María’s game and ensured Iceland weren’t caught out.
5. Cristian Pavón (Argentina)
Pavón only spent 20 minutes on the field, but he had a massive impact nonetheless. He was the only Argentinian player who could use the spaces Iceland didn’t really defend to his advantage, finding lots of open space on the wing and wreaking havoc when he had the ball at his feet. He could have easily won a late penalty, and a shot from outside the box gave Halldórsson some serious trouble.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group D

Group D

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Argentina (5), Iceland (22), Croatia (20), Nigeria (48)
Fixtures:
Argentina vs Iceland, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Croatia vs Nigeria, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Argentina vs Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
Nigeria vs Iceland, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Nigeria vs Argentina, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Iceland vs Croatia, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don

Argentina

Head Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Lionel Messi
Previous Appearances: 16 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Lionel Messi (7)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Nahuel Guzmán (UANL), 12. Franco Armani (River Plate), 23. Willy Caballero (Chelsea).
Defenders: 2. Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), 3. Nicolás Tagliafico (Ajax), 4. Christian Ansaldi (Torino), 6. Federico Fazio (Roma), 8. Marcos Acuña (Sporting), 14. Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), 16. Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), 17. Nicolás Otamendi (Manchester City).
Midfielders: 5. Lucas Biglia (Milan), 7. Éver Banega (Sevilla), 11. Ángel Di María (Paris Saint-Germain), 13. Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), 15. Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), 18. Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), 20. Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), 22. Cristian Pavón (Boca Juniors).
Forwards: 9. Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus), 10. Lionel Messi (Barcelona), 19. Sergio Agüero (Manchester City), 21. Paulo Dybala (Juventus).

Embed from Getty Images

Lionel Messi celebrates after sealing Argentina’s World Cup berth with a hat-trick against Ecuador. Messi is Argentina’s star, and plays a big role in all their success.

Argentina just did enough to make it through a hotly-contested South American qualifying group, with a final day Lionel Messi hat-trick eventually sealing a spot in Russia for Jorge Sampaoli’s team. Now they’re here, they will be a formidable opponent. The brilliant Messi leads what could be the most potent attack in the tournament, with Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and Juventus stars Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala all excellent goal-scorers in their own right. Ángel Di María is a skilful presence in midfield, and he will receive support from quality playmakers like Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Pavón and Manuel Lanzini. Lucas Biglia and Éver Banega are solid players in central midfield, and the combination of a quality midfield and dynamic attack should be a fruitful one in Russia. Defensively, Nicolás Otamendi is coming off an excellent season in the Premier League, and he should combine well with Federico Fazio, Gabriel Mercado, Marcos Rojo and the experienced Javier Mascherano. The Argentinians have plenty of quality, and they will be a very tough team to beat.

There are, however, a few issues that Jorge Sampaoli will need to fix. The team has been overly reliant on Messi, and their qualifying campaign was riddled with inconsistency. Aside from Messi, no Argentinian scored more than two goals in qualifying, with neither Dybala nor Agüero scoring any goals at all. This lack of quality support for the captain was reflected in Argentina’s poor returns, with their haul of 19 goals in 18 games the equal second-worst in qualifying (tied with Paraguay and last-placed Venezuela). Considering the abundance of attacking options at Sampaoli’s disposal, this marks a concerning trend that will need to be turned around. The defence may be a more pressing concern, with Argentina still lacking quality full-backs and displaying a concerning tendency for defensive breakdowns. These issues will be exacerbated by an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and they could derail Argentina’s campaign if not fixed.

Star Player: Lionel Messi

Messi is the undisputed star of Argentina’s side, and he is at the centre of almost all of their success. He has scored more goals for the national team than any other player, and his scoring output for La Albiceleste has remarkably increased in the last few years. He has pace and incredible technical ability, and he is almost certain to perform well on the big stage.

Embed from Getty Images

Nicolás Otamendi controls the ball during a pre-tournament friendly against Haiti. Otamendi has become Argentina’s best defender, and will need to perform if they are to make a deep run in Russia.

Key Player: Nicolás Otamendi

Argentina have had defensive issues for some time, and Otamendi will play a key role in ensuring these problems do not plague their tournament. Since his non-selection for the last World Cup the experienced central defender has improved and was a key part of the Manchester City side that won the Premier League this season. If he can maintain that form, Argentina will be able to thrive.

One to watch: Cristian Pavón

Pavón is one of just three members of Sampaoli’s squad under the age of 25, and the 22-year-old has the potential to make an impact in Russia. He has good skills and plenty of pace, and his ability to play on either wing should allow him to be a handy option off the bench. He is still relatively unknown outside of Argentina, and this World Cup could be a chance to announce himself on the world stage.

Verdict

Argentina are not perfect, but if their attack is on song it is good enough to paper over the rest of the cracks. They aren’t guaranteed to progress from a competitive group, but with Messi on their side they should be alright.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Mercado, Fazio, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Biglia, Lo Celso; Dybala, Messi, Di María; Agüero.

Iceland

Head Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group I
Qualification Top Scorer: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hannes þór Halldórsson (Randers), 12. Frederik Schram (Roskilde), 13. Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson (Nordsjælland).
Defenders: 2. Birkir Már Sævarsson (Valur), 3. Samúel Friðjónsson (Vålerenga), 5. Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Rostov), 6. Ragnar Sigurðsson (Rostov), 14. Kári Árnason (Aberdeen), 15. Hólmar Örn Eyjólfsson (Levski Sofia), 18. Hörður Björgvin Magnússon (Bristol City), 23. Ari Freyr Skúlason (Lokeren).
Midfielders: 4. Albert Guðmundsson (PSV Eindhoven), 7. Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (Burnley), 8. Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), 10. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Everton), 16. Ólafur Ingi Skúlason (Kardemir Karabükspor), 17. Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City), 19. Rúrik Gíslason (Sandhausen), 20. Emil Hallfreðsson (Udinese), 21. Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Malmö).
Forwards: 9. Björn Bergmann Sigurðarson (Rostov), 11. Alfreð Finnbogason (Augsburg), 22. Jón Daði Böðvarsson (Reading).

Iceland were the fairytale story of Euro 2016, and they will be looking to make a similar run in their first appearance at the World Cup. The tiny North Atlantic island (with a population of just 350 thousand) progressed from a tough qualifying group to become the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup finals, and they shouldn’t be underestimated. Their dream run at the Euros, including a stunning second round knockout of England, was built around excellent discipline and a very strong defensive structure. Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kári Árnason are solid centre-backs, and goalkeeper Hannes þór Halldórsson played the tournament of his life at the Euros and is an experienced player. Aside from providing an unlikely attacking threat with his monstrous throw-ins, captain Aron Gunnarsson is a solid presence in midfield, and wingers Birkir Bjarnason and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson are dangerous in attack. With Gylfi Sigurðsson providing some class in midfield and Alfreð Finnbogason providing a dangerous scoring option, Iceland are a well-oiled unit who may just have what it takes to get through.

Embed from Getty Images

Captain Aron Gunnarsson (centre) leads Iceland players in celebration after their Euro 2016 win over England. Iceland made it to the quarter-finals of the Euros with their dogged defence, and they have excellent team spirit.

The World Cup, however, is a tougher ask than the Euros. They have been battling injury issues in the lead-up to the tournament, with main striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson missing with a knee injury and key players Gunnarsson, Finnbogason and Gylfi Sigurðsson all battling various complaints. Their eventual elimination from the Euros, coming in the form of an emphatic 5-2 defeat to hosts France, shows that they will struggle against stronger opponents in spite of their discipline, and their natural style of conceding possession and sitting back could leave them vulnerable. Iceland’s depth is not great, and while they have some quality players they are generally less skilled than their group stage opponents, something which could become an issue in big moments. They can be trusted to fight hard, and Heimir Hallgrimsson’s structure is very sound, but their lack of quality across the park is likely to prove their undoing in the end.

Star Player: Gylfi Sigurðsson

Sigurðsson is Iceland’s only truly world-class player, attracting a club-record fee when he moved from Swansea City to Everton at the start of the season. He is a hard-working midfielder who fits Iceland’s system well, and his ability to pop up with goals and assists in big moments will be invaluable in Russia. He is a quality player, and Iceland desperately need him to be fit and firing.

Embed from Getty Images

Gylfi Sigurðsson (front), Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (centre) and Birkir Bjarnason celebrate Guðmundsson’s qualifying goal against Kosovo. Sigurðsson is the team’s star, but wingers Bjarnason and Guðmundsson will also play a key role.

Key Player: Aron Gunnarsson

Gunnarsson is the other half of Iceland’s central midfield pairing, and while he is not as skilled as Sigurðsson he will be just as important. Gunnarsson has plenty of experience, and his physical play in the middle forms a key part of the Icelandic game plan. His long throw-ins, which tripped up the English during the Euros, allow Iceland extra attacking opportunities, something which could come in handy in tough games.

One to watch: Albert Guðmundsson

Guðmundsson comes from impressive footballing pedigree. He is a fourth generation Icelandic international, and his great-grandfather was Iceland’s first professional footballer. Now, the 20-year-old can forge his own reputation, and the PSV youth product has the talent to make an impact on the world stage. He is likely to be used off the bench, but he can find the back of the net and will be a good option for Hallgrimsson.

Verdict

The odds are stacked against Iceland making it through to the second round, but the same could have been said before the Euros. They are a disciplined group and shouldn’t be written off.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Halldórsson; Sævarsson, R Sigurðsson, Árnason, Magnússon; J Guðmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Finnbogason, Boðvarsson.

Croatia

Head Coach: Zlatko Dalić
Captain: Luka Modrić
Previous Appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Third Place (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group I (beat Greece in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Mario Mandžukić (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Dominik Livaković (Dinamo Zagreb), 12. Lovre Kalinić (Gent), 23. Danijel Subašić (Monaco).
Defenders: 2. Šime Vrsaljko (Atlético Madrid), 3. Ivan Strinić (Sampdoria), 5. Vedran Ćorluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), 6. Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), 13. Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), 15. Duje Ćaleta-Car (Red Bull Salzburg), 21. Domagoj Vida (Beşiktaş), 22. Josip Pivarić (Dynamo Kyiv).
Midfielders: 4. Ivan Perišić (Internazionale), 7. Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona), 8. Mateo Kovačić (Real Madrid), 10. Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), 11. Marcelo Brozović (Internazionale), 14. Filip Bradarić (Rijeka), 19. Milan Badelj (Fiorentina).
Forwards: 9. Andrej Kramarić (Hoffenheim), 16. Nikola Kalinić (Milan), 17. Mario Mandžukić (Juventus), 18. Ante Rebić (Eintracht Frankfurt), 20. Marko Pjaca (Schalke).

Croatia didn’t take a particularly smooth road to Russia, with Group D opponents Iceland edging them out and forcing them into a play-off to Greece. To their credit, they went on to blow their opponents away in Zagreb, a 4-1 win in the first leg all but sealing their passage. The Croats have players from the biggest clubs in Europe all over the park, especially through the middle. Real Madrid star Luka Modrić is a genius with the ball at his feet, and the diminutive playmaker will be complemented well by Ivan Rakitić, Mateo Kovačić, Milan Badelj and Marcelo Brozović. Ivan Perišić is always a dangerous player on the wing, and Juventus youngster Marko Pjaca has the pace and skill to make an impact. Mario Mandžukić leads the line with support from Nikola Kalinić and Andrej Kramarić, meaning there should be no shortage of goals. They only conceded four goals in qualifying, and with experienced centre-back Dejan Lovren and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić leading the defence they should be a hard team to break down.

Embed from Getty Images

Ivan Perišić chases the ball during a qualifying match against Ukraine. Perišić is a dangerous winger who knows how to find the back of the net, and he adds an extra edge to Croatia’s attack.

Unfortunately for Zlatko Dalić and Croatia, the quality on the park doesn’t guarantee success. Their failure to qualify automatically was a disappointment, and Ante Čačić was removed as coach days before a crucial clash with Ukraine after a home draw with Finland jeopardised their campaign. Čačić was unpopular in the dressing room and with the fans, and it’s not clear whether his hurried replacement can avoid a similar fate and get the best out of the players. If he can’t, the results could be disastrous. Their defence could prove a weakness in Russia, and centre-backs Lovren and Domagoj Vida have been prone to defensive lapses in the past. A repeat of such errors in a competitive group could prove incredibly costly for Dalić’s side. For all their attacking quality, they only managed 15 goals in their qualifying group, another sign that all may not be well within the Croatian team. If they reach their potential, they are good enough to go a long way, but its not clear which Croatia will show up.

Star Player: Luka Modrić

Modrić is as influential as any midfielder in the world at the moment, and the diminutive playmaker will be a crucial part of Croatia’s World Cup campaign. He is the kind of player who has it all: he is calm under pressure, rarely makes a mistake in possession and never avoids his defensive duties. His exploits have been an underrated part of Real Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League titles, and Croatia will rely on his brilliance in Russia.

Embed from Getty Images

Luka Modrić celebrates after scoring in Croatia’s play-off clash with Greece. Modrić has won four Champions League titles with Real Madrid, and is the main cog in the Croatian midfield.

Key Player: Dejan Lovren

Lovren has been a key part of Liverpool’s defence for the last four seasons, and it is remarkable that he has only managed 37 caps in a 10-year career with the national team. Although non-selections such as his omission for Euro 2016 were driven by a poor relationship with Čačić, he has not always been the consistent defender Croatia wanted him to be. In Russia, he has a chance to change that, and if he plays well they will be hard to beat.

One to watch: Marko Pjaca

Pjaca has gone from strength to strength since getting a chance with the national team at Euro 2016. A brilliant performance against Spain earned him a move to Juventus, and his ability to beat opponents allows him to create plenty of chances from either wing. In a settled Croatian side he is unlikely to start despite his versatility, but he could be a handful as an impact player off the bench.

Verdict

Croatia have plenty of quality, and stars like Modrić are certain to perform, but has Dalić got what it takes to bring the best out of his squad? We’ll see, but Croatia definitely have what it takes to survive – and potentially thrive – in a tough group.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Badelj; Kramarić, Modrić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Nigeria

Head Coach: Gernot Rohr
Captain: John Obi Mikel
Previous Appearances: 5 (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Victor Moses (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), 16. Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United), 23. Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruña).
Defenders: 2. Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm), 3. Elderson Echiéjilé (Cercle Brugge), 5. William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor), 6. Leon Balogun (Mainz), 12. Shehu Abdullahi (Bursaspor), 20. Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), 21. Tyronne Ebuehi (ADO Den Haag), 22. Kenneth Omeruo (Kasımpaşa).
Midfielders: 4. Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), 8. Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), 10. John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA), 11. Victor Moses (Chelsea), 15. Joel Obi (Torino), 17. Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), 18. Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), 19. John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva).
Forwards: 7. Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), 9. Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), 13. Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone), 14. Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City).

When the qualifying draw pitted Nigeria against Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia, it looked like Gernot Rohr’s men were in for a tough fight. Instead, the Nigerians cruised through to book their spot in Russia, with their only “loss” coming when they fielded an ineligible player. They will face a harder task at the World Cup, having drawn Argentina once again (the sides also faced off in 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014). Rohr has, however, put together a side that can take it up to the world’s best. Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa are all quick and dangerous strikers, and Premier League duo Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses will be dangerous on the wings. John Obi Mikel has plenty of top-level experience, including 11 seasons with Chelsea, and the captain will combine well with Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo and Ogenyi Onazi. Down back, Leon Balogun is a quality central defender, and he marshals a strong defence which conceded just four times in qualifying against some quality attacking players.

Embed from Getty Images

John Obi Mikel (centre) chases the ball in Nigeria’s clash with Argentina at the 2014 World Cup. Nigeria have been drawn against Argentina in all but one of their World Cups, in 1998.

Nigeria may be a strong side and a very tough opponent in Russia, but they are not without issues, especially on the defensive end. The Super Eagles have major issues in goal, where the international retirement of Vincent Enyeama has left a hole that is still yet to be filled. First-choice Ikechukwu Ezenwa has fallen out of favour with Rohr and 19-year-old Francis Uzoho is likely to take the gloves in Russia. Uzoho is currently playing in Deportivo La Coruña’s second team, and it is not clear how he will perform under pressure at the World Cup, and the uncertainty around the position could come back to bite them during the tournament. Aside from centre-backs Balogun and William Troost-Ekong it is not clear who is in Rohr’s best back four, another issue that will need to be sorted out if the Super Eagles are to fly. If they can fix their problems they will be a formidable opponent, but a tough group means there is no time to warm into the campaign.

Star Player: Alex Iwobi

It’s hard to pinpoint one player as the best on this Nigerian team, but Iwobi’s goals against big opponents suggest he could be the hero at this World Cup. The 22-year-old has been getting regular game time with Arsenal, and in recent times he scored a brace against group stage opponents Argentina and a goal at Wembley against the English. He is a quality player on the wing, and could have a big impact in Russia.

Embed from Getty Images

Alex Iwobi (left) battles for the ball during Nigeria’s friendly with England. Iwobi is a dangerous winger who can pierce defences and will play a big role for the Super Eagles in Russia.

Key Player: Leon Balogun

Balogun, along with Troost-Ekong, has been one of the only constant elements in Rohr’s defence, and Nigeria will need the physically imposing centre-back to stand up if they are to progress in this tournament. He has plenty of experience at the highest level, and the Super Eagles will hope that experience shines through on the big stage.

One to watch: Oghenekaro Etebo

Etebo was named CAF young player of the year in 2015, but the 22-year-old is still yet to fulfil his immense potential. He hasn’t quite pinned down one position as his best yet, but he mixes attacking talent with defensive work ethic and can play anywhere from attacking midfield to right-back. In Russia, he could be the midfielder the Super Eagles are looking for, and he has the chance to announce himself as a future star.

Verdict

Nigeria are a strong side, with plenty of exciting talents and quality players. Questions remain about their defence, however, and they may just get edged out by stronger opponents. They will be interesting to watch.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Uzoho; Idowu, Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi; Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi; Moses, Ighalo, Iwobi.

Prediction

Will Iceland be able to repeat their Euro 2016 heroics? Will Argentina’s reliance on Lionel Messi cost them in the end? Can Zlatko Dalić get the best out of an extremely talented Croatian side? What will Nigeria bring to the table? These are just some of the many questions raised by this extremely tight group, where a slip by any one of the four sides could prove costly. On talent, Argentina and Croatia should progress, but both have lingering doubts surrounding their sides that could impact their performance. As for the others, Nigeria beat the Argentinians a few months ago, and Iceland did finish ahead of Croatia in their qualifying group. If Argentina were to miss out it would be surprising, but not entirely unprecedented. With all these unanswered questions, one thing’s for sure: Group D will be fascinating to watch.
1. Croatia, 2. Argentina, 3. Nigeria, 4. Iceland

Fairytale ends as France pile on the goals

Iceland’s dream run through Euro 2016 has ended at the hands of France, with the hosts scoring four goals in the first half to book a semi-final against Germany. The French were in control early, tapping the ball around, and they took the lead in the twelfth minute after a wonderful ball from Blaise Matuidi found Olivier Giroud over the top. The central midfielder played it from inside his own half, and it penetrated the Icelandic defence to put Giroud one-on-one with Hannes Halldorsson. Giroud’s shot passed through Halldorsson’s legs as it rolled easily into the back of the net, with the Icelandic keeper left powerless. It was a goal that had come out of the blue, and it put Iceland on the back foot. France went back to their calm, controlled tempo, and soon they doubled their lead with Paul Pogba’s first international goal since 2014. Dimitri Payet’s corner was perfectly placed, and the Juventus star beat Jon Dadi Bodvarsson in the air to send a thunderous header into the back of the net. France led 2-0, and the game was all but over.

Bodvarsson had a stunning chance to pull a goal back for Iceland after one of Aron Gunnarsson’s trademark long throws, but he was unable to direct Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s flick-on header into the back of the net. The game died down again, and France regained control. Then, with three minutes left in the half, they sealed the deal. It started with Payet. The ball was distributed wide to Bacary Sagna, whose cross was headed down for Antoine Griezmann by Giroud. Griezmann passed it back to Payet, who made his way onto his left foot and drilled it into the bottom corner. It was a great goal, worthy of the set-up work which led to it. Then came the fourth. Pogba’s ball from deep in midfield was flicked on effortlessly by Giroud, allowing Griezmann to get in behind the Icelandic defence. Halldorsson came out, and the Atletico Madrid star responded by chipping him. The ball hung in the air a long time, but Ragnar Sigurdsson was never going to get there and France could celebrate.

The fourth goal was the final nail in the coffin for Iceland, who had fought hard but had been undone by some excellent pieces of play. The French were content to keep the ball as the second half kicked off, and they passed around the back with ease. Payet and Pogba had chances, but France had taken the pace out of the game and didn’t look like losing the ball. Iceland began to find their footing as the half progressed, and after a number of set pieces they were able to score. Gylfi Sigurdsson provided the spark with a brilliant ball into the box, and Sigthorsson was there to volley it past Hugo Lloris into the back of the net. The joy would not last. Giroud scored again when Payet’s long-range free kick was expertly placed in behind the Icelandic defence. The Arsenal striker was too strong for Sverrir Ingi Ingason in the air, and he headed it past Halldorsson to find an open goal. Iceland kept pushing hard, and Lloris made an incredible save to deny Ingason’s close range header, but there was no real action. The energy of the game had left, and it was not coming back.

Iceland scored again with a few minutes to go through Birkir Bjarnason, whose header was too good for Lloris as it found the back of the net. It was scant consolation for Iceland in a massive defeat, but they will hold their heads high after a remarkable campaign. As for France, they go on to face Germany in what is sure to be a thrilling contest.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
France 5 (Giroud 12, 59, Pogba 20, Payet 43, Griezmann 45)
Iceland 2 (Sigthorsson 56, B Bjarnason 84)
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Ned)

France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Sagna, Umtiti, Koscielny (Mangala 72), Evra; Pogba, Matuidi; Sissoko, Griezmann, Payet (Coman 80); Giroud (Gignac 60).
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldorsson – Saevarsson, Arnason (Ingason 46), R Sigurdsson, Skulason; Gudmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurdsson, B Bjarnason; Sigthorsson (Gudjohnsen 83), Bodvarsson (Finnbogason 46).

Top 5
1. Dimitri Payet (France)
Payet finished with a goal and two assists, and he was everywhere for the French. His ball use was good and he showed excellent skill as he caused huge trouble for the Icelandic defence. He played very well, and will hope that the incredible form he has showed throughout this tournament can translate to the game against Germany.
2. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann was full of energy throughout, and he was excellent when given space to move. He became the top scorer of the tournament with his classy chip over Halldorsson, and he looked to be at the top of his game.
3. Olivier Giroud (France)
Giroud scored twice and was a strong presence up front for the French. He provided a great assist for Griezmann with a perfectly timed flick in behind, and he will look to continue his strong form against the Germans. He was strong in the air, and he caused massive problems for Iceland.
4. Aron Gunnarsson (Iceland)
Gunnarsson was Iceland’s best in a losing cause, and he can hold his head high after a strong performance. He was solid in midfield and caused plenty of issues with his long throws into the box. He was able to stay in control throughout, and provided a cool head for Iceland as their system fell apart.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba was a calming influence in the centre of the park, and he was able to use the ball effectively throughout the game. He showed his incredible physical ability with France’s second goal, and he put in a strong performance. He seems to be finding his form at the right time, and he could put in his best effort yet against Germany.

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – France vs Iceland

France vs Iceland, Stade de France, Saint-Denis


Match Log

France

France 2 (Giroud 57, Payet 89), Romania 1 (Stancu 65 pen)
France 2 (Griezmann 90, Payet 90+6), Albania 0
Switzerland 0, France 0
France 2 (Griezmann 58, 61), Republic of Ireland 1 (Brady 2 pen)

Iceland

Portugal 1 (Nani 31), Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Iceland 1 (G Sigurdsson 40 pen), Hungary 1 (Saevarsson 88 og)
Iceland 2 (Bodvarsson 18, Traustason 90+4), Austria 1 (Schopf 60)
England 1 (Rooney 4 pen), Iceland 2 (R Sigurdsson 6, Sigthorsson 18)

Top Scorers

France

3 – Antoine Griezmann
2 – Dimitri Payet
1 – Olivier Giroud

Iceland

1 – Birkir Bjarnason, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Arnor Ingvi Traustason.

Team News

France

Adil Rami and N’Golo Kante picked up suspensions in the match against Ireland, and Didier Deschamps has some tough decisions to make to find replacements. Yohan Cabaye should come in to replace Kante in midfield, and Samuel Umtiti should get the nod over Eliaquim Mangala to start in defence. Antoine Griezmann is looking for a move inside, but Olivier Giroud is likely to remain at centre forward, keeping the Atletico Madrid star on the right wing.
Likely team (4-3-3): Lloris – Sagna, Koscielny, Umtiti, Evra; Pogba, Cabaye, Matuidi; Griezmann, Giroud, Payet.

Iceland

Iceland have no worries when it comes to injuries and suspensions, and they should name an unchanged team for the biggest match in their footballing history. The game represents a big step up in quality for Iceland, but they will be well equipped to handle the pressure.
Likely team (4-4-2): Halldorsson – Saevarsson, Arnason, R Sigurdsson, Skulason; Gudmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurdsson, B Bjarnason; Bodvarsson, Sigthorsson.

Keys to success

France

The French gave away a penalty early on against the Irish, and they will need to start with more confidence against Iceland, who will be harder to break down than Ireland. France looked incredibly dangerous in the round of 16, and if Griezmann, Giroud and Dimitri Payet can combine as well as they did in that match France should come out on top. Deschamps will be hoping that Paul Pogba can find his best in the centre of the park, and he will look for a solid effort from the defence.

Iceland

Iceland played brilliantly to beat the English, and they will need to show the same spirit that they have showed throughout this tournament. The defence has been very solid, and they will need to up their game to deny the French. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Aron Gunnarsson have been in excellent form in the centre of the park, and they will look to stand up as Iceland’s best players. Iceland have been strong on the counter-attack, and they will be looking for a solid attacking performance.

Prediction

Iceland have surprised many by making it this far, but the dream run should come to an end at the hands of a very dangerous French team. Payet, Griezmann and Giroud combined to devastating effect against Ireland, and they could break the Icelandic defence. France 2-0.

Iceland take out England as dream run continues

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).

Top 5
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.

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – England vs Iceland

England vs Iceland, Allianz Riviera, Nice


Match Log

England

England 1 (Dier 73), Russia 1 (V Berezutski 90+2)
England 2 (Vardy 56, Sturridge 90+2), Wales 1 (Bale 42)
Slovakia 0, England 0

Iceland

Portugal 1 (Nani 31), Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Iceland 1 (G Sigurdsson 40 pen), Hungary 1 (Saevarsson 88 og)
Iceland 2 (Bodvarsson 18, Traustason 90+4), Austria 1 (Schopf 60)

Team News

England

England have no injury concerns heading into the game against Iceland, but Roy Hodgson is still expected to make five changes to the experimental side that played against Slovakia. Four Spurs players are tipped to return, with Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Dele Alli and the out of form Harry Kane all returning. Wayne Rooney will retake the armband from Gary Cahill after he was rested against Slovakia.
Likely team (4-3-3): Hart – Walker, Cahill, Smalling, Rose; Alli, Dier, Rooney; Lallana, Kane, Sturridge.

Iceland

Lars Lagerback kept his starting line-up the same throughout the group stage, and with no injury or suspension concerns he is unlikely to make any changes ahead of what is the biggest match in Iceland’s footballing history.
Likely team (4-4-2): Halldorsson – Saevarsson, Arnason, R Sigurdsson, Skulason; Gudmundsson, Gunnarsson, G Sigurdsson, B Bjarnason; Bodvarsson, Sigthorsson.

Keys to success

England

The English will not get anything from a disciplined and well-trained Icelandic defence, and they will need to convert their possession and opportunities into goals. They finished second in their group despite three dominant performances, and they will need to find some way of converting their chances if they are to win. Kane has not been in form and was lucky to edge out Jamie Vardy to reclaim his starting spot, and he will need to show how good he is.

Iceland

Iceland are likely to give the English plenty of easy possession, and they will need to hold firm against a side which has the potential to score plenty of goals. England created plenty of opportunities in the group stage thanks to the work of their fullbacks, and Lagerback will need to find a way of preventing them from getting forward. Iceland will also need to find a way of scoring more goals, and will look to involve Gylfi Sigurdsson to try and break the English defence.

Prediction

Iceland are a well-organised, well-trained unit and they will be very hard to break down. The English should dominate possession and have plenty of chances, but they have struggled to take their opportunities in the past. Iceland have no pressure or expectations, and could push England all the way. This game could be headed for a shootout, a situation the English would dread. England 2-1.

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.