The Icebowl Redux

Eduardo of Croatia (R) challenges Kari Arnason of Iceland during their 2014 World Cup playoff soccer match in Reyjkavik November 15, 2013. REUTERS-Sigtryggur Johannsson

Well, a fool and his money are soon parted. My bet on an Iceland win went sideways. Moving on however, after watching the Iceland v Croatia game I now firmly believe that Iceland are going to qualify.

As for the game itself it was a tight cagey affair. Both teams were clearly set up to counter-attack and score on the break. The problem was that neither team  was willing to throw men forward out of fear of conceding. For much of the game then a set piece or an individual howler seemed to be the only way the deadlock would be broken. However, late in the first half it seemed that Iceland had split the game open. Not with a set piece or Croatian mistake but with an excellent team move. Quick, crisp passing and the Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was behind the centre half and heading towards the goal. Que last ditch tackle from the Croatian centre back. It looked like a foul and possible red card to me. The referee, who had recently officiated el classico, however was having none of it. It wasn’t a foul. The player had presumably dived. Now I don’t want to spend time slanging off referees. In this case however, the referee should have realised he had made a mistake. How you ask? Sigthorsson was stretchered off injured. Picture the scene. You are the referee. You see the tackle and think it was dive. The ball is cleared out for a throw in. You notice the player is down on the ground injured and is stretchered. Why do you not rethink your decision and award the foul? I have no idea. Still it brought everyone’s favourite icelandic forward Eidur Gudjonsson onto the pitch so every cloud has a silver lining.

From this injury the game continued along the same lines established earlier i.e. a tactical stalemate. The next and last incident of note came with the red card for the Iceland defender Olafur Skulason. Although the Iceland manager Lars Largerback complained afterwards that it was harsh there can be no doubt that this was a red card. The remainder of the second half around 40 minutes revealed the severe limitations of this Croatian team. Simply put they don’t create many chances and consequently they don’t score many goals. The few other match reports I have perused have mentioned that the Croatian full backs were a constant threat going forward. I didn’t see any of this. Croatia were incredibly narrow and the full backs never managed to get forward and behind the Iceland back four. In fact the only time the Croatians got behind the Iceland defence was the when they Skulason got sent off. For Croatia who on paper should be thrashing Iceland this is truly awful.

The biggest problem for Croatia however, was the performance of Luka Modric. Croatia had clearly set up to use Modric as the playmaker behind Mandzukic. However, because, Iceland did a good enough of keeping the ball. Modric got dragged further and further back deeper and deeper so that instead of receiving the ball outside the Iceland penalty box he was picking it up outside Croatia’s. Consequently, his creative talents were wasted and Croatia were toothless going forward.

Can Croatia turn this poor performance around and progress to Brazil 2014 I doubt it. In the first leg Croatia were able to play for a draw, afterall they had a home leg to play, they could sit back. I highly doubt they will be able to employ the same tactics in Zagreb. They will have to play a more offensive game and when they do I would bet that Iceland will score against them. Iceland seemed like a team set up to score on the counter-attack.

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