Who? Iceland - Croatia
Where? Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
When? June 26, 20:00 (CET local time)
As suspected previously, Iceland has experienced a hard time with being favorites vs Nigeria. The Super Eagles, led by an Ahmed Musa double, won the game and complicated Group D even more towards the last matchday. On Tuesday, Iceland and Croatia will square off – and perhaps Heimir Hallgrímsson and his boys would relish the opportunity to play underdogs once again and return to their comfort zone against the impressive Croatians.
Although drawing the first game vs Argentina felt like a victory, a brief look at Iceland’s fixtures reveals us a gloomy picture – the have not won a match since their last World Cup qualifier against minnows Kosovo, on October 9th, 2017. During that span, the team drew 3 times and lost 5. On the other hand, Iceland beat Croatia in their last meeting in Reykjavík in June 2017 and have finished above them in the World Cup qualifying group.
This time, the match will take place in Rostov. Besides the fact that Croatia have won the group and will perhaps field a weakened side, Iceland can enjoy a sort of a home advantage – 3 of their squad play their club football for local FC Rostov: Sverrir Ingason, Ragnar Sigurðsson and Björn Sigurðarson. Anecdotes aside, Iceland know they are in a must win situation to keep their chances alive. Even that might not be enough, as it very much depends on the result between Nigeria and Argentina. No doubt that every goal will count, as goal difference can play a factor in such a tight group – a fact that makes Gylfi Sigurðsson’s missed penalty vs Nigeria even more crucial and painful. Iceland would want to do their part and hope their fairy tale story will continue further.
Within 90 minutes, Croatia have instantly become Russia’s summer hit and some even dared to question whether they can go all the way this time. That’s what happens when you defeat Argentina 3-0 with such an emphatic performance.
For many, it reminded for a minute the 1998 team that beat Germany in the same score line. Instead of Šuker and Boban, the show was taken over by dynamo’s Modrić and Rakitić, who prove time and time again they are massively underrated in their Real Madrid and Barcelona roles respectively. Modrić’s strike against Argentina was an exact copy of an important Champions League goal he scored for Los Blancos vs Manchester United in 2013. Ante Rebić, who scored the opener and was equally impressive, is already linked to Tottenham Hotspur. He has revealed he had an intention to swap shirts with Lionel Messi after the game but nixed the idea since “The Argentines made such a bad impression on me, I expected much more”.
The 2 opening wins, along with how the rest of the group shaped up, means Croatia’s chances to finish first are around 99.8%, according to predictions. This surely means they can use the last game vs Iceland as an opportunity to rest some players and take it easy, with the next round on Sunday already in mind. If so, we might see names like Marko Pjaca, Mateo Kovačić and Milan Badelj get some minutes. The latter have played an important in Croatia’s qualifying campaign that included 2 games vs Iceland. Although the Nordic’s finished above the Balkan’s, Croatia have won 4 out of the 6 meetings the two faced, including a crucial one in the 2014 World Cup qualifying playoffs.