Iceland closing in on historic Euro 2016 berth


Iceland's Gylfi Sigurdsson, left, and Aron Gunnarsson. (Filip Horvat/AP)

Lars Lagerback doesn’t want to change anything. As far as he and Iceland co-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson are concerned it’s all going just fine, thank you very much.

“We have two tough games ahead,” the former Sweden boss remarked. “We’ve rarely practised and saw no real reason to change now.”

The 67-year-old, who will retire in 2016 with Hallgrimsson succeeding him, named the same 23-man roster that welcomed Czech Republic to Reykjavik in June for a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier. The hosts won 2-1 that night and leapfrogged their opponents to the top of the Group A table.

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Since the weekend Hellas Verona midfielder Emil Halfredsson has pulled out of the squad with a hamstring injury and Genclerbirligi’s Olafur Ingi Skulason has been tapped to replace him.

But other than that the Iceland side set to face the Netherlands on Thursday will be identical to the one that beat the Czechs—assuming, of course, that captain Aron Einar Gunnarsson has sufficiently regained full fitness after sitting out Cardiff City’s match at Nottingham Forest this past weekend.

Given Gunnarsson’s high level of contributions in Euro 2016 qualifying to date he’s not a player Lagerback and Hallgrimsson would be all that keen to do without, although the 26-year-old has already suggested his recent rest could be of benefit to the national team.

An inspirational presence in the centre of the park, Gunnarsson popped up with the equalizer against Czech Republic on Matchday Six; Kolbeinn Sigthorsson tallied the winner.

The Iceland staff, it was later divulged, had played the Bee Gees’ “You Win Again” to pump up the players—the lyrics “There’s no fight you can’t fight” seeming remarkably appropriate in retrospect.

Sigthorsson, incidentally, played four seasons at Ajax before switching to French club Nantes during the summer and touched down in familiar Amsterdam on Monday afternoon. He just might be, wrote Frettabladid columnist Kolbeinn Tumi Dadason Skrifar, Iceland’s secret weapon against the World Cup semifinalists—a player who knows Amsterdam Arena as well anyone on either side.

That the 25-year-old arrived as part of a contingent of only five players speaks to the diaspora of Iceland internationals. Three of them—including former Chelsea and Barcelona attacker Eidur Gudjohnsen—play their club football in China, and the domestic leagues of Russia, Germany, Switzerland and Turkey are also represented.

Backup goalkeeper Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson and left fullback Kristinn Jonsson—both of Kopavogur-based Breioablik—are the only players in the current setup to ply their trade at home.

The picture of a private jet transporting the entire team to their next opponent doesn’t at all depict Iceland’s reality. Ranked 131st in the world just three years ago they’ve never qualified for a major competition and, but for a handful of familiar veterans and established names of some repute, are a collection of underdogs who just happen to be turning international football on its ears.

No one saw it coming.

A 1-1 draw away to Austria and modest 1-0 home win over Estonia were the only bright spots of Iceland’s 2014 friendly campaign, but just three months after edging the Blueshirts they thumped an abysmal Turkey outfit 3-0 in Reykjavik before beating Latvia by the same score a month later.

Three days after that they toppled the Netherlands at the Laugardalsvollur—a 2-0 win described by Swansea attacker Gylfi Sigurdsson as “a perfect night.”

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Added Hallgrimsson: “This is a world-class team we have beaten. First and foremost it was a really solid team performance.”

And one that will need to be reprised in order for Iceland to do the double over the Dutch, who are looking to bounce back into Group A contention following the July exit of manager Guus Hiddink. Former Ajax and Netherlands defender Danny Blind is now in charge, and after Thursday’s match he and his players will travel to Konya for a showdown with Turkey, who trail them by just two points.

Iceland, meanwhile, are busy making history. Even Lagerback has acknowledged the sudden expectations, which he notices on a day-to-day basis in the form of Solvi Tryggvason—a filmmaker who is creating a documentary about the team’s push for Euro 2016 qualification.

“I understand that people have expectations,” remarked Lagerback. “We in the team should not think about it. We should only think about ourselves and our preparations for each game. The mental game makes a huge difference.”

Which is why he won’t be changing anything. Not even the Bee Gees. “But if anybody can, we can.” He might even sing along.

Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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