The 2013 Iceland men’s national football team has already achieved more than any other club in the history of the country, but they’re not done yet. On November 15, they will play their first of two legs against Croatia at home in an effort to reach the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
Croatia is a strong and storied club — one that now gets by on their defense more often than their offense — but there is possibly some instability at the helm. In 1998, they finished 3rd in the World Cup, but it’s been mostly downhill since then. After their last World Cup qualifying match in October, a 2-nil defeat to Scotland, manager Igor Stimac offered his resignation while taking full blame for the club’s poor play. Inexperienced 42-year-old former Croatian player Niko Kovač replaced him. This, heading into important matches against an excited and eager Iceland, could spell trouble. Consider Mexico’s struggles after replacing their manager three times this summer.
Iceland has no question mark at their helm, with manager Lars Lagerbäck (who has 20 years of experience in international competition) in full control over his youthful squad. Iceland has a young offensive attack that could throw the Croatians off, even with their solid defense. They have a world-renowned player who anchors their defense as well. If Iceland is to win (Croatia has been given a slightly better chance of advancing) here are the key players that will make it happen.
The 23-year-old Ajax striker has emerged as the biggest threat for KSL. Sigþórsson has netted four times in five 2014 World Cup Qualifying matches. In all, he has 13 goals in 19 caps for his country. His ability to read his midfielders is uncanny and makes him a threat against any opposing defense.
Aron Einar Gunnarsson
The Cardiff City star and Iceland captain is the heart of the Iceland team, whether he’s at right back or in the midfield he is playing a crucial role for KSL. The 24-year-old was hurt over the summer but should be in top form for the two biggest legs the country has ever witnessed. His demeanor exceeds that of a 24-year-old, having been brought along by Iceland legend and all-time leader in goals scored Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen (who is still available for selection) and the 65-year-old Lagerbäck.
Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson
The 23-year-old winger has introduced himself as a great complementary player to Sigþórsson. In the last five fixtures, Guðmundsson has three goals. His hat trick against Switzerland this summer proved how big of a potential star the Iceland side has on their hands. Should he tap into that form again in either leg against Croatia, Iceland may very well be unbeatable.
Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson
Tottenham Hotspur’s Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson is the midfield source of Kolbeinn Sigþórsson’s and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson’s success. The 24-year-old is possibly one of Iceland’s most well rounded players, possessing the ability to both set teammates up while arguably wielding the best long-range shot on the team. His set-piece skills are second to none for the Iceland side and could be pivotal in beating the defensive-heavy Croatian squad.
Croatia will introduce their coach in Reykjavik, and it could be overwhelming. Iceland needs to jump out to an early lead if they’re to continue to shock the world. If they fall behind early, they may not quite have the depth to keep up with Croatia. Portugal vs. Sweden, France vs. Ukraine and Romania vs. Greece round out the star-studded action Friday in the European qualifiers. While some of the world’s biggest stars play on those clubs, the Iceland vs. Croatia match is the one you do not want to miss.