Opportunity knocks for Iceland and potential disaster looms for Roy Hodgson’s England in their David-and-Goliath last 16 clash at Euro 2016 tonight.
For Iceland, whose population of 330,000 makes them the smallest country to have qualified for a major tournament, the game in the Mediterranean city of Nice brings the chance to score one of the biggest upsets in football history.
For England—haunted by 50 years of hurt since their 1966 World Cup triumph—and their under-pressure manager Hodgson, it represents the wobbliest of tightropes.
“I am not even contemplating going out to Iceland,” Hodgson told reporters in Chantilly, north of Paris, prior to the game. “As far as I’m concerned, I will prepare the team for Iceland and we will do the best we can to win the game. Then after the game we will either be heavily criticised as we haven’t won it or with any luck, if we played well and won the game, people will maybe say we did well.”
A quarter-final at Stade de France against the Republic of Ireland or hosts France awaits the victors, but England’s group-stage travails means they cannot afford to look that far ahead.
Held 1-1 by Russia in their opening game, they edged Wales 2-1 courtesy of a stoppage-time Daniel Sturridge goal, only for a 0-0 draw with Slovakia to condemn them to the more daunting half of the tournament draw.
Roundly criticised for making six changes to his starting XI against Slovakia, Hodgson is expected to restore captain Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to his line-up.
But his attacking configuration remains problematic. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling disappointed in England’s first two games, but Sturridge and Jamie Vardy, decisive against Wales, failed to impress against Slovakia.
There is little mystery about how Iceland will set themselves up. Lars Lagerback’s side secured a second-place finish in Group F with a low defensive bloc and clinical counter-attacks.
After earning the scorn of Cristiano Ronaldo by holding Portugal to a 1-1 draw, a late own goal gave away a 1-1 draw with Hungary and Iceland needed a dramatic 2-1 win over Austria to secure a last 16 place.
Arnor Traustason’s 94th-minute winner, deliriously described by Icelandic television commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson, had the effect of tipping Iceland into the draw’s thorny bottom half.
But where England will see only danger in Nice, Iceland see only opportunity. “I would guess that in the mind of the people in England, it is only a game to lose,” said co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson. “For the people of Iceland, this game is not seen in that way. I wouldn’t want to be Roy Hodgson if he lost to Iceland.”
Defeat for England would rank alongside their 1-0 loss to the part-timers of the United States at the 1950 World Cup in the annals of the team’s most dismal failures.
Hodgson, 68, and Lagerback, 67, have been friends for close to 40 years, the former having been the manager of Swedish club Halmstad when the latter was beginning his own coaching career in the late 1970s.
Lagerback says that Hodgson “meant a lot to me, both as a nice person and also as a coach”.
Hodgson has been similarly complimentary, saying that Lagerback “more than deserves” any praise he receives. But with the English press corps ready to write his obituary, Hodgson is not allowing the bonds of friendship to blur his vision.
“If you want me to add my voice to people saying Lars Lagerback has done a fantastic job, then I am more than happy to do so,” he said. “But of course on Monday night he will be my enemy, like all coaches during the 90 minutes, as the aim is to win that game and there won’t be any time for sentiment.”
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