If Cristiano Ronaldo was to be believed, the Icelandic players possess a small mentality and subsequently “are not going to do anything in the competition”. It was a statement reminiscent of a child throwing his toys out the pram and one that has since come back to bite him.
In the final fixtures of Group F, Iceland secured a dramatic late win against Austria while Portugal could only manage a 3-3 draw against Hungary. This meant that Hungary topped the group with Iceland finishing in second; Both ahead of Portugal.
Iceland entered their first major tournament as the smallest nation to do so and continued to make history since. While they may be a comparatively tiny country, what they have achieved so far is a massive deal for both themselves and football fans around the world.
The reward for the Icelandic players is England in the last sixteen. Having already earned a draw against Portugal (ranked 8th in the world), the Icelandic players will be optimistic of causing an upset. England (ranked 11th in the world), despite finishing the group stage unbeaten, will be disappointed to have finished behind Wales in Group B. Subsequently, they find themselves in the tougher half of the draw and facing an Icelandic side with nothing to lose.
Right up until the dying minutes of the final Group F games, England were to face Portugal in the next round. Only when substitute Arnor Ingvi Traustason slid in to hand Iceland the win, were the tables turned.
Now, on paper, Iceland should be an amazing draw for England and one that should give them the best possible opportunity of advancing to the next stage of the competition. If England’s performances so far are anything to go by, however, it will be anything but smooth sailing.
As Iceland have shown, they possess a huge amount of heart and determination. While the football they play is not the most attractive or exciting at times, they are getting the job done effectively. Iceland are showing that they can hold their own against some of the world’s best and are able to play without expectation.
England, meanwhile, have already come under scrutiny for their lacklustre performances
in the group stage. Despite beating Wales, England could only manage a draw against Russia and Slovakia. The English players have shown that they are amongst the best when it comes to keeping possession. When it comes to making a breakthrough against compact opposition, however, they have been struggling.
That is where the main concern lies. Over their three group games, Iceland’s possession averages out at a measly 26%. England, meanwhile, average at 61%. It is clear that when it comes to the game, England will no doubt dominate; They have too much depth in their squad not to. Iceland will sit deep and take their opportunities if they arise.
So far, England have not been able to make their superiority count and that is where the doubt lies. England need their strikers to step up in the final third and put the result beyond doubt early on. The longer they leave it and the louder the Icelandic fans get, the harder it will be.
While the term gets paraded about a lot, the game is definitely winnable for the English players. After being knocked out of Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup by Portugal via penalty shootouts, fans will be relieved to have avoided that omen. One would anticipate that England should know by now how to face up against a side looking to sit deep and fans will be hoping that Roy Hodgson’s hit and miss tactics are spot on.
England fans will definitely be quietly confident of getting a result on Monday but Iceland have shown already that they are a determined bunch. One thing’s for sure, they should not be underestimated.