Iceland: Lars Lagerbäck (8-1-8)
Croatia: Niko Kovač (0-0-0)
Third Meeting All-Time
Series History: Croatia 2 wins, Iceland 0 wins, 0 draws
The Iceland Men’s National Team is in uncharted waters as they are making their first appearance in the qualifying playoffs round to any major tournament; this island nation is just two matches away from the World Cup Finals in Brazil. If they qualify, they will become the smallest nation (in population) to ever qualify for the tournaments and Iceland are not here by a fluke they boast a squad of good players.
Iceland is led by their two central midfielders Aron Einar Gunnarsson and Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson who both play regularly for their clubs in the English Premier League. They also have four players each who play in the Dutch Eredivisie and the Danish Superliga. The thing though that makes this Iceland team dangerous is their youth.
12 of their 23 players are 25-years-old or younger, including six of their projected starters. Even if they were to not get the job done here then they still would have a solid young core coming back for a run at qualifying for Euro 2016.
Iceland won their last two home qualifiers, which should give them a lot of confidence going into the first leg. A win would be ideal but they would not be out of it with a draw as they were unbeaten in their last four road qualifiers.
Iceland Projected Lineup: 4-3-2-1
Hannes Þór Halldórsson
Eggert Gunnþór Jónsson — Kári Árnason — Ragnar Sigurðsson — Ari Freyr Skúlason
Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson — Aron Einar Gunnarsson — Birkir Bjarnason
Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen — Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson
Croatia is entering their playoff series in a tailspin. In their first six qualifiers, they had gained 16 points including a draw with Belgium and were in a very good spot. Former manager Igor Štimac then tried to fix something that was not broken and experimented with different tactical approaches.
In Croatia’s final four qualifiers, they used four different formations and the result of that experiment was a draw to Serbia, a loss to group-winners Belgium and two losses to lowly Scotland. After the second Scotland loss Igor Štimac handed in his resignation and was replaced by Croatian legend Niko Kovač. It’s unclear how Kovač will lineup the squad tactically since this is his first major coaching job but expect Croatia to play it safe in the first leg and try to keep it close so they can try and use their rowdy home crowd to intimidate Iceland in the second leg.
Croatia has been in this situation and beyond before and will know how to handle it but Iceland is no pushover. They will need to focus on the task at hand not overlook Iceland because if they do, they may just be watching next year’s World Cup from a bar in Zagreb.
Croatia Projected Lineup: 4-3-3
Darijo Srna — Josip Šimunić — Vedran Ćorluka — Dejan Lovren
Ivan Rakitić — Luka Modrić — Niko Kranjčar
Ivica Olić — Eduardo — Mario Mandžukić
Iceland hosts Croatia in the first leg of their UEFA Qualifying Playoff at the Laugardalsvöllur in Reykjavik on Friday, Nov 15 at 2:00 p.m. ET and can be seen online on ESPN3.
First Leg Prediction: Iceland 2, Croatia 1