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Monday, September 21, 2015


Iceland's match away to the Netherlands at the Amsterdam ArenA in Euro 2016 qualifying group A on 03/09/15 was an important one in all sorts of ways; for the hosts, victory was imperative if they were to keep their hopes of at least reaching the play-offs for France. For Iceland, a win would bring them one step closer to creating history.

No Icelandic team had ever qualified for the final stages of a major competition, although this one had come close just under two years ago, when they lost to Croatia in the play-offs over two legs. Going into the match, they were two points ahead of the Czech Republic, who were due to play Kazakhstan in Prague the same evening. Before kick-off, several of the 3000 Icelandic supporters who had come to Holland for the fixture - and the dozens of Icelandophiles who had come to Amsterdam to lend their support - were sceptical of their team's chances of gaining all three points, but were hopeful of watching their team come away with a draw. After all, Iceland had beaten Oranje for the very first time in eleven attempts in their 2:0 win in October last year, so a point in the return match would come in very handy in their attempt to qualify for Euro 2016.

The game itself started with the Dutch very much on the front foot, with Wesley Sneijder the focal point for much of the attacking early on, but it was Iceland's Johann Gudmundsson who had the game's first real shot on goal after seven minutes. A cross from Gylfi Sigurdsson found Gudmundsson in space five yards out from the right-hand post, but he scooped the ball back across goal and wide.

Iceland began to come more into the game after this, but Arjen Robben, Memphis Depay ("Memphis") and Wesley Sneijder all had chances in quick succession, with Robben also firing a 20-yard free-kick just wide of Hannes Halldórsson's left-hand post.

The Dutch dominated the first 25 minutes or so, but Iceland were coping well with the pressure, which was mainly coming from the flanks via Robben and Depay, whilst the visitors were mostly working through the middle, with Birkir Bjarnason working his socks off on behalf of his team.

Depay had a chance to line up a shot from the edge of the Iceland penalty-area after 27 minutes, but dithered and eventually lost the ball. Sneijder's dangerous 29th-minute cross was only just missed by both Depay and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Things then began to unravel for the hosts in the space of just a few minutes just after the half-hour mark. First the ever-dangerous (and ever injury-prone) Arjen Robben hobbled off with an ankle injury and was replaced by Luciano Narsingh, and then Bruno Martins Indi received a straight red card in the 33rd minute for a rush of blood to the head. He had been clipped from behind by Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, and as both players fell over each other onto the ground, Martins Indi lashed out with his forearm, catching Sigþórsson on the neck, and all this right in front of the linesman on the near side.

Holland had lost their best player and were now also a man down, but still they pressed, with Memphis Depay assuming more responsibility; he sent over a dangerous-looking cross that evaded both defenders and attackers, and then sent in a low free-kick which was spilled by Halldórsson but the ball was cleared by a defender.

Huntelaar was seeing very little of the action, and Dutch manager Danny Blind replaced him with Jeffrey Bruma as the first half drew to a close. Sneijder had another go from long range just before half-time, but his shot was easily saved by Halldórsson.

Memphis Depay is unable to prevent the ball going out for a throw-in on a night when nothing went right for the Dutch

Sneijder's effort was indicative of the first half, with the Dutch pressurising and having a fair number of shots on goal, but they did not unduly trouble the Icelandic defence and most of the few shots they had on target were no trouble for Halldórsson.

Iceland began the second half in attacking mode, and Johann Gudmundsson's work on the right led to a pass inside to Ári Skúlason, but his 25-yard shot flew to the right of Jasper Cillessen and his goal. The visitors kept up the pressure, and Bjarnason and Sigurdsson were at the heart of it.

After a receiving knockdown from Sigþórsson inside the Dutch box in the 51st minute, Bjarnason advanced towards the goal-line but was tripped by the lunging Gregory van der Wiel some ten yards out; watching the incident take place, it was as if it had happened in slow motion but it was a definite penalty. Both Dutch players and fans howled to high heaven, but to no avail; Serbian referee Milorad Mazic pointed to the spot and had got his second contentious decision of the evening just as spot-on as he had his first (Martins Indi's red card).

Before the match, Gylfi Sugurdsson was the (almost) unanimous choice amongst the Icelandic faithful as the man most likely to carry their team to qualification for Euro 2016, and he did not let them down. His penalty, low and to the right of Cillessen, although probably not the best he has ever taken, was good enough to put Iceland in front, despite the 'keeper getting both hands to the ball.

Gylfi Sigurdsson scores Iceland's winning goal from the penalty-spot

Bjarnason was involved in the next move of note three minutes later; he collected a cross-field pass inside the Dutch penalty-area, held up the ball, passed it back to Gudmundsson, whose deftly curled effort from 20 yards smacked off the upright with Cillesen beaten. Sigþórsson skewered the rebound wide under pressure from a defender.

The Dutch cranked up the pressure again, with Sneijder's low shot again proving no problem for Halldórsson; the Icelandic goalkeeper had to be a little more alert moments later when he dealt well with a curling shot from Depay. Sigþórsson was substituted in the 64th minute by Eiður Gudjohnsen as Holland kept attempting to breach the Icelandic defence but were abjectly unsuccessful; the vast majority of their shots on goal were from outside the penalty-area.

Gylfi Sigurdsson is mobbed by his team-mates after putting Iceland in front..

..whilst, at the other end, 3000 Iceland supporters raise the roof

Narsingh was doing his best to bring something fresh to the home team's approach by going on a run, cutting in and shooting from distance, but the ball went wide of the right-hand post. He took matters into his own hands again in the 69th minutes when a couple of his team-mates had chances to shoot, but didn't; however, his shot from the edge of the area went wide.

Almost immediately, the boys in blue darted down the other end, and Cillesen had to be at his acrobatic best twice within the space of a few seconds; he denied first Gudmundsson and then Sigurdsson with two flying saves to parry away stinging shots from outside the box. The second resulted in a corner which was met by Gudjohnsen, who sent his half-volley well over the bar. Bjarnason and Gudjohnsen combined to set up a chance for Gudmundsson with fifteen minutes left, but the latter's half-volley from the right-hand side careered across the area and wide.

Depay continued to be the most likely of the Dutch players to find the key to unlock the visitors' defence, but even he was suffering from "hit-and-hope" syndrome; Narsingh set him up as the game entered the last ten minutes of normal time, but the Manchester United man's shot was tame. 

Wesley Sneijder at last tested Halldórsson with a low shot from distance, to which the 'keeper was able to get his fingertips and divert it away for a corner. He had another go with a low shot in the 88th minute, this time from actually inside the area, but Halldórsson got to it, albeit with some difficulty.

Three minutes of injury-time should have signalled a cavalry charge from, and a shot at salvation for, Oranje, but the best they could do was fashion another chance for Sneijder, whose snapshot from 20 yards or so simply hadn't enough power to worry Halldórsson. With that ended the game as a contest, if one could call it that, and upon the final whistle which followed a minute or so later, the 3000 Icelandic fans who made the trip to the ArenA and had supported their team vociferously from the off cranked up the decibel level still further.

Sneijder's final attempt on goal was typical of the Dutch team's evening; they just didn't have enough power in the front-line, nor did they have the invention needed to unlock the Icelandic defence, which had come to Holland to garner a point any which way they could. Holland gave Hannes Halldórsson far too little to do, and were restricted to shots from distance by a defence which was marshalled to perfection by Ragnar Sigurdsson and which performed superlatively as a unit. Robben looked sprightly until he pulled up, Sneijder did his best but his best days are now surely behind him, and only Depay and, to a lesser extent, Narsingh and Cillesen, really made their mark for Danny Blind's team on a night to forget for the hosts. It was hardly the way Blind would have wanted to begin his career as Netherlands manager. 

The Netherlands attack the Icelandic defence, but the ball was eventually cleared

On the other hand, this was the night when Icelandic football, at international level at least, can be said to have come of age. The management duo of Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson have moulded a team of some quality who fully deserved the win on the night and who, to pull a football cliché out of the bag, play for the shirt. 

The entire team gained a collective five stars for their overall performance, but Birkir Bjarnason was, in the eyes of your correspondent anyway, man of the match; he pulled the strings in midfield and was a bundle of energy throughout the ninety minutes, rampaging through midfield one moment, helping out his defence the next, and then suddenly appearing in the last third of the pitch. 

The victory meant that Iceland only needed a point to qualify for their maiden major final tournament, which they achieved three days later thanks to a nervy, dull 0:0 draw at home to Kazakhstan. Captain Áron Gunnarsson will probably miss the first match of Euro 2016 thanks to his second yellow card of the game, which he received in the last minute of normal time. That did not, however, dilute the celebrations amongst the Icelandic support at a packed Laugardalsvöllur as the point gained ensured that third-placed Turkey could not overhaul them in the standings. Joining Iceland at Euro 2016 from Group A are the Czech Republic, who won 2:1 away to Latvia the same evening.

For the Netherlands, though, worrying times lie ahead; they have been poor throughout the entire campaign, and prior to the match against Turkey had only won a single point in the matches up to that point against the Turks, Iceland and the Czech Republic. In front of a packed house in Konya, they looked for most of the match like a team which had completely lost its way, and meekly went down to a 3:0 defeat and fourth place in the group table.

The Icelandic team and their supporters celebrate as one; will we see more of the same during Euro 2016?

That will no longer concern Iceland, who conclude their programme with a home match against Latvia on 10/10/15 and a match away to Turkey three days later. A win against the Latvians will more or less guarantee top spot thanks to a superior goal-difference over the Czech Republic, who also face the Turks before heading to Amsterdam for their final match against the Netherlands, two games which will also help determine who finishes top, but who ends up in third place in the group and so be in line for a play-off spot. 

Iceland's qualification will surely turn out to be a shot in the arm for domestic football, which is already the most popular sport in the country amongst both males and females but is still weak in comparison to most of the rest of Europe. The women's team qualified for the 2013 Women's Euros and reached the quarter-finals; it would be a surprise if the men's team were able to emulate that feat, but with Messrs Lagerback and Hallgrimsson at the helm, this possibility should not be discounted. The team have already achieved much over the past few years, losing out in the 2014 World Cup play-offs to Croatia and now qualifying for Euro 2016. It will be interesting to see what the near future will bring. One thing's for sure: Iceland fully deserve their place at the big table of European football and they - and their supporters - will surely do the continent's lesser lights proud.

Plaudits for the Iceland squad from friend and foe alike

THE NETHERLANDS: 1 Jasper CILLESEN, 2 Gregory VAN DER WIEL, 3 Stefan DE VRIJ, 4 Bruno MARTINS INDI, 5 Daley BLIND, 6 Davy KLAASSEN, 7 Memphis DEPAY, 8 Georginio WYNALDUM (21 Quincy PROMES), 9 Klaas-Jan HUNTELAAR (13 Jeffrey BRUMA); 10 Wesley SNEIJDER, 11 Arjen ROBBEN (17 Luciano NARSINGH)

SUBSTITUTES (unused): 12 Kenny TETE, 14 Jairo RIEDEWALD, 15 Terence KONGOLO, 16 Vurnon ANITA, 18 Luuk DE JONG, 19 Robin VAN PERSIE, 20 Ibrahim AFELLAY, 22 Tim KRUL (GK), 23 Jeroen ZOET (GK)


SUBSTITUTES (unused): 3 Hallgrímur JÓNASSON, 4 Kristinn JÓNSSON, 5 Sólvi OTTESEN, 12 Ögmundur KRISTINNSON (GK), 13 Gunnleifur GUNNLEIFSSON (GK), 16 Rúnar Már SIGURJÓNSSON, 18 Elmar BJARNASON, 19 Rúrik GÍSLASON, 21 Vidar Orn KJARTANSSON

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