Plucky underdogs have so far been few and far between at Euro 2016 with Romania, Albania, Northern Ireland and Ukraine all conceding the opening goal when set up to counter, and rarely threatening thereafter. But it’s a pattern that could be about to change when the smallest nation of them all come up against the competition’s most revered superstar.
Whether Cristiano Ronaldo will be firing on all cylinders after his recent injury concerns is a matter of debate. His thigh problem was never considered to be too serious, so one assumes the Real Madrid man has now had ample time to recover. A sunshine break in Ibiza will have done him good but his match sharpness might not properly return until after this encounter.
The focus on Ronaldo is appropriate because, without him, we are always left wondering where the Portuguese goals are going to come from. There’s no shortage of eye-catching technique in midfield and wide areas, especially now that Ricardo Quaresma is staking a late claim for inclusion, but there's not much cutting edge, while the lack of a credible centre forward to play off undermines the overall package.
Portugal scored seven goals against Estonia in their send-off match at the Estadio de Luz last week but repeatedly made heavy weather of breaking down stubborn defences throughout their qualifying campaign, relying on stoppage time goals to win games in Denmark and Albania, while never once prevailing by two clear goals.
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That’s also a mark of Fernando Santos. The former Greece boss is now in charge of his own nation and is famously conservative in approach. But if he sets up his team with any degree of caution in this clash, he might only be giving the North Atlantic minnows the opportunity to settle into their first major tournament and grow in confidence as the contest wears on.
Iceland played out only one goalless draw in qualifying but they did keep clean sheets against the Netherlands (twice) and Turkey, and you’d expect the shut-out to be instrumental to their hopes in Saint Etienne. So let’s take a chance on them showing admirable resilience by investing on ‘no goalscorer’ at 15-2, and cover it with a bet on Under 1.5 goals at 2-1.
In Lars Lagerback, they have a coach with a proven track record for creating teams greater than the sum of their parts, yet rather than the standard collectivism you come to associate with most international underdogs, built on loyalty and sacrifice for your colleagues, Lagerback preaches a cohesion fostered on individual responsibility.
There’s an acceptance throughout the squad that a chain is only as strong as its weakest leak, and the motivation for Iceland’s success appears not to be driven by any wave of patriotic emotion but a fear of failure not to be exposed as that weakest link. It’s a different take on team spirit but this is a fiercely competitive group, and the evidence to date suggests it works.
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