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Fairy Tale of the Year Candidate: Iceland’s Heroic Qualifying Bid

The following is a guest post by soccer writer David Leboff. His work can be seen in The Dugout – an online soccer magazine. Follow him here.

 Lars Lagerback’s side from the tiny island nation of Iceland have giant dreams ahead of their second leg match against proverbial footballing mammoths Croatia. Following a nil-nil draw at home in Reykjavik, Iceland will look to snatch a World Cup berth in hostile territory in Zagreb. Particularly impressive was the fact that the home side played with ten men for forty minutes in the second half as a result of Olafur Skulason’s red card. Establishing a lead at home in these two legged playoffs is important, but equally paramount is keeping a clean sheet for the away goal tiebreaker. And although Iceland failed to score or register a shot on goal, they did the defensive job in impressive form.

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Considering Iceland had kept only two clean sheets in ten qualifying matches, conceding fifteen goals over that span (tied for last in the group with Cyprus), this was a colossal feat especially with their red card handicap. Iceland was much more prolific on the offensive side of the ball in qualifying, level with Switzerland for most goals in their group at seventeen apiece. Unfortunately for the Icelandic side, one of their hottest scorers of late, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who had four goals in each of Iceland’s four previous qualifying matches, was stretchered off just before halftime with an ankle injury, and will be unavailable for the second leg. Lars Lagerback will likely turn to former Chelsea star, and Icelandic legend, Eidur Gudjohnsen to fill the void up top.

From the opening kickoff, Croatia appeared a side that felt they had won by simply turning up with a more prodigious footballing history. They were lax on the attack, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, the creative linchpin in Croatia’s midfield, was sloppy and caught in possession frequently. His distribution was careless and lacked the creative spark that makes him one of the world’s best number tens. The only two moments that created clear opportunities for Croatia were the break where Skulason felled Ivan Perisic, the offense that led to his dismissal, and an offside chance that was saved by the brave Icelandic keeper Hannes Halldorsson. Halldorsson stopped all six shots he faced, though none were particularly troubling for the Icelandic net minder. His best work was coming off his line early and often to deal with toothless Croatian crosses coming in from the flanks, where the physical Icelandic backs would not have been worried in the first place.

Iceland appeared nervy in the first twenty minutes, but did create a few chances on the break that were well defended by the Croatian back line. For the final twenty-five minutes of the first half, Iceland showed that they are not only deserving of more respect than number forty-six in the world, but also a spot in the World Cup. They looked stronger in possession, and could very well have created some dangerous opportunities with the wind at their backs in the second half had it not been for the controversial sending off.

Croatia dominated possession in the second half, but again failed to create many clear chances. Iceland defended well, and even enjoyed an occasional spell of possession themselves, despite the Croatian man advantage. The Croat’s will be the bookmaker’s favorites to win at home in Zagreb especially with Sigthorsson sidelined, however, Iceland cannot be discounted. This is a side that lost only one road game during qualifying, and put together the second best comeback during that span. Only Sweden’s recovery from four-nil down in Berlin was more impressive than the Icelandic’s overturning a four-one disadvantage against group winners Switzerland in Berne. Sigthorsson’s absence will be felt, but Gilfy Sigurdsson and Johann Gudmundson, the latter of which netted a hat-trick in the Switzerland comeback, can still offer Iceland the goal-scoring threat they will require.

Croatia will have to come out of the gates with much more urgency than the team did on Friday if they hope to beat this spirited squad from Iceland. High pressure in the midfield, especially on Modric, will be the key to Icelandic success in this game again. They did not allow Modric to dictate the game as he is so capable, and limiting his threat again could see Croatia being forced into playing down the flanks with harmless crosses coming in yet again.

Tuesday marks the day the last European spots will be booked for Brazil with Iceland hoping they can pull off one of the biggest upsets of qualifying by capitalizing on the poor form of the Croatian’s who are now winless in their last five competitive matches. Drive and spirit were not the only aspects of the Icelandic game evident on Friday night in Reykjavik; the technical ability of Lars Lagerback’s side is highly underrated.