Euro newcomer Iceland no longer a minnow

Iceland players celebrate winning the match with a 1-0 score after the Euro 2016 qualifying soccer match between Netherlands and Iceland, at the ArenA stadium, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. (Peter Dejong/AP)

Iceland is the smallest country to ever qualify for a European Championship. The tiny island nation can be considered a fairy tale, but it is anything but a minnow. The Icelanders have shown remarkable improvement in youth development and coaching, which has given their fans plenty of optimism for the future. However, a spot in the knockout stage at Euro 2016 would give the supporters even more reason to smile.

Goalkeepers: Hannes Halldorsson (Bodo), Ogmundur Kristinsson (Hammarby), Ingvar Jonsson (Sandefjord).
Defenders: Ari Skulason (OB), Hordur Magnusson (Cesena), Hjortur Hermannsson (PSV Eindhoven), Ragnar Sigurdsson (Krasnodar), Kari Arnason (Malmo), Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Lokeren), Birkir Sævarsson (Hammarby), Haukur Heidar Hauksson (AIK).
Midfielders: Emil Hallfredsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea), Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff), Theodor Elmar Bjarnason (AGF), Arnor Ingvi Traustason (Norrkoping), Birkir Bjarnason (Basel), Johann Gudmundsson (Charlton), Eidur Gudjohnsen (Molde), Runar Mar Sigurjonsson (Sundsvall).
Forwards: Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Nantes), Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg), Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (Kaiserslautern).

Swede Lars Lagerback and Icelandic tactician Heimir Hallgrimsson both share the top job. Hallgrimsson will succeed Lagerback after Euro 2016, but both deserve plenty of plaudits. Iceland nearly qualified for the 2014 World Cup and has accrued 15 wins, six draws and 13 losses in 34 matches since the two coaches were hired.

4-4-2: (GK) Halldorsson – (D) Skulason, Sigurdsson, Arnason, Bjarnason – (M) Hallfredsson, Sigurdsson, Gunnarsson, Bjarnason – (F) Sigthorsson, Bodvarsson

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June 14: vs. Portugal in Saint-Etienne
June 18: vs. Hungary in Marseille
June 22 vs. Austria in Paris

Iceland was in a tough qualifying group with the likes of Czech Republic, Turkey and the Netherlands. Despite the supposed difficult draw, it still finished in second place to book its spot in the tournament. The Icelanders conceded just six goals in 10 games, fewer than the likes of European superpowers Germany and Italy.

Iceland’s experienced coaching staff has instilled strong tactical intelligence throughout the squad. The Nordics’ relatively small player pool is also an advantage because the camaraderie within the team is very strong; this has allowed the Icelandic nation to be organized at the back. However, it has a few technically gifted players who can unlock defences with one scintillating pass if it is in control of a game.

It’s not much of an issue, but Iceland’s lack of “star power” and experience on the big stage might be a hindrance. Thankfully for the Nordics, Austria and Hungary will be going through the same rigours.

Gylfi Sigurdsson: The midfielder is one of Iceland’s most renowned players due to his time in England. Sigurdsson will be Iceland’s key playmaker at Euro 2016. He led the team in goals and assists during qualifying and will surely be just as influential this summer.

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson: Sigthorsson is just 26 years old but he is already Iceland’s second-best scorer of all-time with 19 goals in 36 caps. The Ajax forward wasn’t the most prolific striker during qualifying but he always poses a threat up front.

Aron Gunnarsson: Iceland’s captain does not excel in any particular area, but he is a solid defender when he drops from the midfield to help the back line. Gunnarsson will likely be the more conservative of the two central players as Sigurdsson will roam forward to join the attack.

Was qualifying just a fluke or is Iceland for real? The Icelanders are strong on both sides of the ball, have a strong understanding with one another and boast an experienced coaching staff. Those are three huge keys to success in an international tournament. There is no reason why they can’t keep this momentum going in the competition.

Portugal is Iceland’s first opponent. That is huge because it faces the toughest team (on paper) in Group F right away. If the Icelanders claim at least a draw in that opening game, they would likely need just three more points from its final two matches to qualify for the knockout stage. The Nordics can easily hold their own against Austria and Hungary, so they could feasibly make the round of 16 as a group runner-up.


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