Connect in the back of the net

Below is the eighth installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “Footé in France” by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray.

The knockout stages of Euro 2016 have arrived and here’s where many believe, after a tentative group stage that conducted the experiment of 24 teams, the tournament will kick into full flow.

The four best third-place qualifying rule has arguably backfired with Albania, having managed what Portugal failed to achieve by winning a game, on the end of rough justice by training three days in the hope of playing a match that was suddenly taken away from them.

Some teams, notably Slovakia in England’s group, have played to keep the score down in matches, knowing a solitary win will be enough to take them through, but the last 16 will mark where those antics end the true business begins.

Still, there is some room left for fairy-tales, with Northern Ireland playing Wales, Republic of Ireland meeting with France with the name Theirry Henry reopening old wounds, and, after everyone has been before them, Iceland play England in Nice on Monday evening.

Much has been made of their 323,000 population, making them by far the smallest country at these finals, but it is a truly remarkable figure. When Cristiano Ronaldo called Iceland a “small” team who “wouldn’t do anything in this competition”, he was both right and wrong.

With a population smaller than Bristol, Iceland found a path to the knockout stages having finished above Portugal in the group, with Ronaldo’s men facing Croatia, perhaps the group stage’s most impressive team, in the last 16.

It is England though for Iceland in an intriguing match-up that will again examine England’s ability to break-down a team that remains stout in defence and compact in shape, tests they failed against Russia and Slovakia and only narrowly passed against Wales.

It will be a seismic moment for football in the miniscule Nordic country that is reaping rewards for shrewd investment in coaching and footballing facilities, producing a huge effort to make the sport accessible for all. With the emphasis on improving technical ability, Iceland has a UEFA B-licensed coach to every 825 people.

The expectation will be on England against a team competing in its first ever major international tournament and who were ranked as low as 131 in the world at the time of the last European Championships four years ago, but Iceland have responded marvellously to the instructions of manager Lars Lagerback and they will not be an easy proposition.

Lagerback is a veteran of five major tournaments with Sweden and boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of the international game, so Roy Hodgson will find a wily and astute opponent sitting across from him when he takes to the dugout at the Allianz Riviera.

To make it tougher, Hodgson will be facing two minds, with Lagerback’s co-manager Heimer Hallgrimsson, an Icelandic cup winner with IBV back in 2004, sitting alongside him and preparing to assume the reigns whenever Iceland’s odyssey at these finals draws to an end.

England know what they will be facing; an organised and spirited unit that fought back from 1-0 down against Portugal in the group stages, showed resilience to draw with Hungary before mixing their steely character with an element of class to overcome Austria in unimaginable circumstances.

The way Theodor Elmar Bjarnason, a midfielder for Danish club AGF, keenly nicked the ball before galloping, chest puffed out, towards the Austrian goal to square it for Arnor Ingvi Traustason, who plays for Swedish champions IFK Norrkoping, to find the net with a desperate slide was rather surreal.

It was like time had stopped and all natural order had broken down ready for the underdog to have their moment in the spotlight and they are aiming for it to continue.

“These guys have shown they can work for a good result and I hope we can put some questions to the English team” says Lagerback, who has never lost to Monday’s opposition as a coach. Though that would require some improvement, with the ever-professional Lagerback demanding ever-higher standards from his overachievers. “We are not satisfied with the way we have performed” he said.

It is unlikely their game-plan will alter too much however, with England being given the ball and asked to break them down. Iceland’s possession stats in their group stage games were 28% vs Portugal, 29% vs Hungary and 31% in the victory over Austria, so they will again attempt to suffocate England’s pressure with Kolbeinn Sigthorsson the man running a lone foray in attack and trying to win the long balls that will give Iceland the chance to breathe.

Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, whom England know all about from his exploits in the Premier League with Spurs and Swansea, will try to produce something magical when Iceland have a rare opportunity to attack while Birkir Bjarnason showed he can play with his fine volleyed equaliser in their opening game with Portugal.

Jon Dadi Bodvarsson plays as a winger but is dangerous, as Austria found out from one of Aron Gunnarsson’s monstrous long-throws that England will have to be alert to, steaming into the box to get on the end of pumped-in balls.

Captain and fearless leader Gunnarsson, of Welsh side Cardiff City, will relish the meeting in Nice in a combative midfield he forms with Charlton Athletic’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson. Together they will try to break the passing rhythm of an English side, strangely for one of a major tournament variety, who have seemed assured and confident in possession.

If England’s attack, who Wayne Rooney has challenged to be more clinical after firing a blank against Nice in St Etienne, manage to break that midfield line they face a back four kept in check by Krasnodar’s Ragnar Sigurdsson, who played every minute of Iceland’s qualifying campaign, and Kari Arnason, formerly of Plymouth Argyle and Rotherham United, who was immense against Austria and outstanding throughout the group-stages.

It was Arnason who led the viscous response to Ronaldo’s denigration and is another experienced leader in a team that thrives on togetherness.

Behind them is he short-sleeved presence of Hannes Thor Halldorsson, the goalkeeper who formerly directed music videos before turning professional two years ago at the age of 29.

It is Halldorsson who goes some way to embodying the remarkable story of this Iceland group and though he faces a tough ask in repelling Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford, it wouldn’t go beyond the realms of believability if he managed it.

On a pitch that looked heavy and patchy in Sweden’s defeat to Belgium on Wednesday, against an Iceland that has previously refused, on so many occasions, to play to their small nation limitations.

The consolation prize of a free whale-watching trip may be a realistic prospect.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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