Hungary may still have to prove they are big enough to merit sharing a pitch with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. Frankly it was hard enough for them sharing a pitch with Iceland. In this meeting of two of Euro 2016’s surprise teams Iceland were less than three minutes plus added away from etching their names into the history books as they pumped every muscle to protect a 1-0 lead. But as has become typical of this tournament, a late twist wrestled away the storyline.
Hungary had huffed and puffed to minimal effect for most of this encounter but that all faded into white noise as they were overcome at the end to equalise. The substitute Nemanja Nikolic drove the ball across and as Birkir Saevarsson stretched to try to intervene he prodded the ball past his own goalkeeper. It was a cruel blow for Iceland, whose efforts had been monumental in search of a first win on this stage. That would have been an achievement to reward years of dedicated work to improve the football culture in a place that was for decades a distant European football outpost. Not to be. Having said that though when their emotions settle they can reflect on a strong contribution to Group F and the chance to try their luck against Austria.
Accusations of a defensive style of play had set a peculiar backdrop to the astonishing achievement of coming back from a goal down to draw their opening match against Portugal. Iceland showed how comfortable they were with their playing philosophy as they set out to try to contain Hungary but also make inroads where possible. They caused an early stir as Jon Dadi Bodvarsson jumped to glance in a header. The ball skimmed the roof of Gabor Kiraly’s net.
Hungary struggled to make an impression. Balazs Dzsudzsak was their main threat, bearing down on goal and attempting a couple of first half shots.
As these teams tried to give themselves a leg up, endeavour ruled. Aesthetics were incidental.
But it was Iceland who began to turn the screw with more conviction. They pieced together a break which fell to Johann Gudmundsson, who showed good strength to hold off Tamas Kadar and suddenly found himself alone in front of the veteran Kiraly. Hungary’s keeper stuck out a leg to save. Kolbein Sigthorsson was next with sight of goal but his angled effort was deflected.
Iceland’s head of steam was simmering, and it was about to explode – largely influenced by some recklessness in Hungary’s defence. Kiraly fumbled as he came out to claim Gudmundsson’s corner, and having dropped the ball, which was falling for Ragnar Sigurdsson, Kiraly’s outstretched arms swept the Icelandic defender’s legs away. The ball bobbled on towards Aron Gunnarsson who was cluttered by Kadar. It wasn’t immediately clear which offence the referee Sergei Karasev decided to punish (or even both) but the dramatic result was a penalty for Iceland.
Gylfi Sigurdsson radiated coolness as he stood over the ball in front of the Hungary hardcore and the line of police in their riot gear. He slotted Iceland ahead with precision, driving low into the corner of Kiraly’s net. It was an extraordinary moment.
The second half, with something so massive to hold, inspired Iceland to tuck back and take care of defending. They dropped deeper and dangerously deeper. Hungary were restricted to long hopeful shots. Dzsudzsak drew a first clear save of the evening from Nannes Halldorsson with a neat free-kick, calmly handled. When the goalkeeper flapped at a cross later Ari Skulason was on hand to shuffle the ball away.
It was a sign of the pressure that was beginning to crank up when Alfred Finnbogason pulled back Richard Guzmics and took a booking for the team. Halldorsson caught the free-kick. Saevarsson then clipped Dzsudzsak and was also cautioned.
The game changer was forced by Nikolic’s cross, so painfully turned in by Saevarsson. Kiraly sprinted the length of the pitch in jubilation. The chance of one last sting in the tale came as substitute Eidur Gudjohnsen, took the last kick of the game, following up a free-kick from Sigurdsson which ricocheted wide.
All in all, one week on from when Marseille was assailed by the carnage brought about by the convergence of England, Russia, trained thugs, local malcontents, CRS French security forces, tear gas, hospitalised injured and mass road and metro closures, the city played host to a different scene. Although there were a few pre-match skirmishes in the Hungary end and the now ubiquitous flares at the end of it all, about 30,000 Hungarians and almost 10% of the Icelandic population were rapt to take part in this adventure, with the majority in fine spirits as they drama twisted in front of their eyes.
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