Perhaps the best way to sum up the potential dangers for Roy Hodgson and his team is to imagine the reaction if Iceland – a country, we have learned in the past few days, with more volcanoes than professional footballers – were to produce the most unexpected result so far of Euro 2016 and where it would rank in the list of ignominious results England will never be allowed to live down.
Somewhere near the top, presumably, given that it would be an ordeal comparable to England’s opening game against the United States in the 1950 World Cup, when Walter Winterbottom’s side, featuring Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen, with Stanley Matthews on the bench, managed to lose 1-0 against a set of part-timers whose manager had described them as “sheep ready to be slaughtered” (including a goalkeeper who usually earned his living driving a hearse for his uncle’s funeral parlour).
OK, Iceland cannot be underestimated in the way, back in 1950, the Daily Express suggested “it would be fair to give [the US] three goals of a start”. Yet their goalkeeper also has a second job: Hannes Halldorsson films television advertisements and shot the video for Iceland’s entry in the 2012 Eurovision song contest. Even more remarkably, Halldorsson has been Iceland’s best passer, statistically, in every game.
Iceland have tried, and failed, to reach this tournament on 11 previous occasions, along with 13 unsuccessful attempts to get into a World Cup, so it is no wonder there is talk of the country’s newly elected prime minister, Gudni Johannesson, calling a public holiday if they win against England. Should that happen, Hodgson’s chances of keeping his job would rank somewhere between minuscule and non-existent. He would be out.
Privately, there are senior figures within the England camp who have admitted they were celebrating when Iceland scored the stoppage-time winner against Austria that meant Hodgson’s side did not have to face Portugal. Publicly, of course, it is a different matter but, amid all the platitudes for Lars Lagerback’s team, Hodgson was perhaps going too far when he described England’s opponents as “unbelievably hard to beat”. Holland might agree. Portugal, Austria and Hungary all had a go in the group stage and could not manage it. Yet the United Arab Emirates beat Iceland this year. So did the United States, Denmark and Norway. Iceland might be dramatically improved, a lovely story and tough, obdurate opponents – but, equally, they are still Iceland.
It is certainly not being overly presumptuous – even in an age when the natural inclination is not to build up expectations too much – to think England should not find too much stress against a side with a centre-half whose career encompasses spells at Plymouth Argyle and Rotherham United. Yet there are, of course, dangers. Iceland have their own long-ball specialist, Aron Gunnarsson, but that is not where their similarities with Stoke City under Tony Pulis stop. They are not a team for the purists but an organised, dangerous and effective one, nonetheless. They also take a great deal of pleasure from chopping down more talented opponents.
“I’ve seen Iceland in their three games,” Hodgson said. “They are so compact, they work so hard for each other and they are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifices. And then he [Lagerback] uses what weapons he finds at his disposal. He finds himself with a guy who throws the ball like Rory Delap, so they work hard on that aspect of the game.
“He [Lagerback] doesn’t have the wealth of talent that I believe I have. But only 11 play and if you happen to have a good 11 you can cause some so-called more talented individuals a lot of problems.”
England have worked in training on keeping out Gunnarsson’s missiles but mostly they have worked on finding a penetrative edge and, specifically, showing more creativity in and around the opposition penalty area. “I don’t think we can be accused of not having imposed ourselves on games,” Hodgson said. “I don’t even think we can be accused of not creating chances. But we haven’t taken them, so everything we have been doing is to make certain we are aware how important it is.
“We need to be as ruthless as we can possibly be, because there are no prizes, unfortunately, for playing what some people might think is good football. It’s about winning or losing, staying in or going out, and we have been very brutal with ourselves in that respect. We have a very brutal focus.”
Adam Lallana can testify to that after losing his place on the back of a 26-game run without a goal, but Raheem Sterling can probably count himself fortunate that Hodgson is planning to recall him in another new-look attack also featuring Harry Kane and Daniel Sturridge. Hodgson must be hoping that Sterling’s confidence has been soothed by his reassuring telephone call from Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s new manager.
At the same time, England will have to defend robustly when Iceland’s joint manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, can point out that he and Lagerback have created a side that “have scored goals in almost every game from a set piece.”
It was Hallgrimsson, incidentally, who interjected when a Swedish journalist asked Gunnarsson and Gylfi Sigurdssson for their views on the Cod Wars. “This was the only time Iceland went to war,” Hallgrimsson’s history lesson began. “Now, we are too small to have an army. We lack manpower, so we would be beaten easily and rather quickly.”
That was the moment Hallgrimsson turned to the two players to his right. “These guys are the Icelandic army now,” he said. “That’s why everyone is supporting them”.
One would have to fear for Hodgson should England lose, and the back-page potential for a fishy version of what Graham Taylor knows as the Turnip treatment.
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