World Cup Group D: Will Iceland be frozen out by Croatia?
Group D. It’s been everything, yet not what we expected. Argentine antics, mediocre performances, and Croatian delight. You always expect excitement from a group involving Lionel Messi, yet you would presume he’d hinging on to the results of others for his own success. Such is the importance of Croatia vs. Iceland.
Of course, as we know by now - the last group stage matches run concurrently to avoid any pre-determined scandals where results are fabricated. We are less likely to see forgeries when the teams are in the midst of a game. Both games bare incredible responsibility on the final group standings.
I fondly remember a competitive playoff fixture between the two sides. Croatia denied Iceland their dream of going to Brazil. That, however, proved to be a touch-paper for their European Championship heroics in 2016 - providing us with the (footballing) household names which are now the Icelandic side. Since then, the teams have met in the qualification campaign for this very World Cup. They each won their respective home ties; meaning the sides are well versed with each other - having played four times in five years. The all-time record is lopsided though, four wins for Croatia, one win for Iceland and one stalemate.
FIFA Ranking: 22nd
Iceland would have come away from their draw with Argentina thinking they had done fairly well. Yet, the loss to Nigeria would have hurt them greatly. Iceland controlled the entire first half, yet Sigurdsson was wasteful and couldn’t finish a Tesco Meal Deal, never mind the chances he was presented with. They now sit with one lone point, in the third position - pondering how they can get out of the group stage. The answer is… beat Croatia, and hope Nigeria fail to win. They won’t exactly be rooting for an Argentina win, but it’s less detrimental than a Super Eagles victory.
Iceland simply needs to spend more time on the ball. In their first game they saw just 22% of it; and a mere 38% in the aforementioned loss. Playing a conventional 4-4-2 didn’t seem to suit the players against Nigeria, so that may have to change. 4-5-1 may allow the side more control of the ball and to bring the game to their pace.
Gudmundsson is a creative winger who could certainly get forward. So far he’s not played in the tournament, despite playing well for Ajax all season. It’s his time now, as he’d afford Iceland an attacking edge whilst still keeping enough stability in the midfield. He would also offer Sigurdsson more service at the very top of the pitch.
FIFA Ranking: 20th
Croatia has already secured their spot in the round of sixteen; with their two prior victories. They defeated Nigeria 2-0 and saw off the favourites; Argentina 3-0. Those displays could mark the coming of the Croatian side on the international stage. There’s an awful lot of talent waiting for international accolades. Dethroning the typical old guard in Argentina was a sign of the times that international football is changing.
At this axiom, Zlatko Dalic has two very distinct paths to run down. He can field his best eleven and go for the win against Iceland; trying to top the group. This will allow him and the squad to keep the rhythm from their prior two wins; at least trying to win will promote a winning mentality going into the knockout stages. Topping the group historically means you get an easier draw for the second round, but isn’t always the case.
The alternative is to rest his key players; given that they are mathematically safe. Whilst the idea sounds good, they are many negatives lurking in this passive approach. Nobody goes to a World Cup for a holiday, the players need to be at their best - and playing football. Chopping and changing create instability; which could deter the players from giving their best. It could rejuvenate the rested players, but as mentioned - it can backfire; especially if they end up coming second in the group and have to face Brazil.
The urge to win is always going to be stronger than the urge to place better. That will ensure an open game. The quality debate would tip the pendulum to Croatia, especially when considering how relatively poor Iceland have been, sure, they earned a point against Argentina - but Croatia got three. Iceland has not been playing with a ball, they’ve wasted chances and of course, Sigurdsson missed that penalty.
Iceland will be completely deflated from the Nigerian result and most likely slump in this match. I expect them to start brightly, they might even nick one - because at this point they have to attack. Yet, Croatia will come good - revitalise from conceding, level up and go on to win the game with Modric and Rakitic showing their quality. 3-1 to the famous checkerboard team. Their marvellous run continues – finally coming good.