Iceland has a chance to put itself in an excellent position to qualify for the knockout round from Group D at Argentina’s expense as it faces Nigeria on Friday at Volgograd.
The Strakarnir Okkar sent the first shockwave through this World Cup in Russia with their 1-1 draw against Argentina in their World Cup debut. Alfred Finnbogason quickly canceled out Sergio Aguero’s goal in the first half, and goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson became the hero a nation of 340,000 people deserved when he denied Lionel Messi on a second-half penalty to preserve the scoreline.
Iceland’s good fortune continued via scoreboard watching Thursday when group leader Croatia flattened Argentina 3-0, dropping the two-time World Cup champion behind the Strakarnir Okkar into third place. If Heimir Hallgrimsson’s team win this match, it would be three points clear of the Albiceleste and then need only a draw in their final match against a Vatreni side already through and planning on rotating their lineup.
Nigeria needs to not lose this match to remain in the hunt for second in the group, and a win would put it in second leading into its group finale versus Argentina. The Super Eagles, though, looked completely out of sorts in their 2-0 loss to Croatia in which poor defense on set pieces contributed to both goals.
Oghenekaro Eteko was responsible for an own goal in the first half on a scramble after a corner kick and William Ekong’s foul trying to cover Mario Mandzukic in the second half on a corner kick led to a penalty by Luka Modric.
The Super Eagles, who reached the round of 16 four years ago in Brazil, are winless in their last three World Cup matches (0-1-2).
LAST TIME OUT
Iceland’s resolute defending meant that Argentina’s 27 shots, including 11 by Messi, and 73 percent possession mattered little, and in the moments the Strakarnir Okkar did have possession in open play, they created solid chances. Birkir Bjarnason should have scored before Finnbogason did in the first half and Iceland finished with nine shots.
If there is one worry for Hallgrimmson, it is the status of Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who was forced off after 63 minutes with a calf injury. The Burnley midfielder is one of the best options Iceland has for whipping in crosses from the flank, and with the Strakarnir Okkar expected to have more possession in this contest, someone will have to step forward and help Iceland carry play through the middle third.
Much was made of coach Gernot Rohr using a four-man backline against Nigeria since it gave opponents in its World Cup run-up fits when using three at the back. There is also a belief Jon Obi Mikel was asked to do too much as both playmaker and defensive midfielder as it wound up canceling out his total play.
If Nigeria does stick with a four-man back, the impetus will be on Wilfred Ndidi to help the Green Eagles turn offense to defense and hit rapidly on the counterattack and form a push-pull tandem with Mikel. They have pace to burn on the flanks with Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses, but they must also be aggressive about taking those opportunities.
Iceland is expected to swap Rurik Gislason for the injured Gudmundsson at right back, while talisman Aron Gunnarsson is in line for another full 90-minute effort as he appears fully recovered from a knee injury.
The two goals conceded by Nigeria against Croatia meant that the Super Eagles have conceded five goals off set pieces in their last four matches. Rohr insisted his team has been practicing these situations, but the execution on the training ground has not carried over into match play.
Hallgrimmson has the luxury of keeping Iceland within its strengths of counterattacking knowing Nigeria must come at his team, but there’s also a quiet confidence in knowing the things his side do well offensively: set pieces and direct play, are things the Super Eagles have struggled in defending at times. The key for the Strakarnir Okkar is not to get sucked out of position in the middle third where Nigeria can use its speed out wide.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Nigeria – Odion Ighalo (F)
Operating as the lone striker against Croatia, Ighalo was often starved of service as Nigeria failed put just two of its 14 shots on goal. He has not scored since last September in a qualifier against Cameroon, but the former Watford man is still capable of a star turn for the Super Eagles.
Iceland – Birkir Saevarsson (D)
Perhaps the most unheralded of Iceland’s back four against Argentina, Saevarsson did yeoman’s work at right back neutralizing Angel Di Maria and keeping him outside the penalty area for most of the match. With Gislason likely playing ahead of him instead of Gundmundsson, Saevarsson will again have to be judicious about the moments he does venture forward in support.
Per Ladbrokes, the match is a toss-up as both sides are getting 7-4 odds to win, with a draw checking in at 19-10. Ighalo and Kelechi Iheanacho are joint-leaders for the first goal of the match at 5-1 odds, followed by Finnbogason (9-2) and Albert Gundmundsson (11-2).
One thing to note is that the weather forecast is calling for searingly hot conditions in Volgograd, with a high of 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) expected. That was one of the reasons Iceland set up camp in Sochi, which is also known for its warm summer climate.
Yet that is secondary to the suddenly sky-high stakes of this game in which the winner, if there is one, has the inside track to finishing behind Croatia in the group.
Igahlo has promised a better effort from the Super Eagles, telling FIFA’s official website that “we want to attack … and we want to create chances because only with chances you score goals.” Still, Nigeria must raise its level of play multiple notches after such a listless effort put forth against Croatia.
Iceland served notice it is not just happy to be at the World Cup and now has taken a win and two draws from England, European champion Portugal and World Cup runner-up Argentina in the last two years in addition to winning its qualifying group. The Strakarnir Okkar must guard against a letdown and also must not let Nigeria find space to run at their defenders.
This game will be one of cat-and-mouse, with Nigeria looking to find space to fly on the flanks and Iceland looking to counter through the middle. Gislason will need to be attentive in the midfield, but he will also have a strong support system in which Sigurdsson will track back deeper.
Hallgrimsson told ESPN that Group D will be “decided at the margins, a set piece, a goal in extra time.” The margins are something Iceland have mastered of late and will do so again in a 2-1 victory.
Iceland will complete group play against Croatia, which it pipped to win its European qualifying group to punch its ticket to Russia, on Tuesday in Rostov-on-Don. Nigeria will face a desperate Argentina side the same day in St. Petersburg.