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Saturday 18 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Lagerback close to Iceland miracle

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Eamonn Sweeney

Anyone peddling the line that the Republic of Ireland's spiritless World Cup qualifying campaign is excusable because 'we just don't have the players' should ponder the heroic campaign of Iceland.

Seeded sixth out of six before Group E began, Iceland currently lie in second place, a point ahead of Slovenia. And with their next game a home tie against bottom-placed Cyprus on October 11, they have a very decent chance of making the play-offs.

While we were timidly submitting to Sweden and Austria, Iceland put themselves in contention by coming back from 4-1 down to draw 4-4 against group leaders Switzerland in Bern and then beating Albania 2-1 at home.

This is unaccustomed territory for the land of sagas, volcanic islands and Bjork. Iceland have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament, hardly surprisingly given that the country's population of 323,180 means it's got about 200,000 less of a pick than Cork. The shortage of footballing population is such that the country holds the unique record of playing a father and son in the same international match, Arnor Gudjohnsen being replaced by his son Eidur in a 1996 friendly against Estonia. In the qualifiers for the last European Championships, the team won one match out of eight in their group.

Yet here they are with Rio a distinct possibility, the change in their fortunes perhaps epitomised by their lying two points ahead of a Norway team which finished 12 points clear of Iceland in the European Championships.

Gudjohnsen Junior is still there, 17 years after his debut, along with players who ply their trade with such giants as KR Reykjavik, SK Brann, Odense BK, SonderjyskE and Rotherham United. Gylfi Sigurdsson of Spurs is their biggest name and the only player holding down a first-team slot at a major club. Hat-trick hero against Switzerland Johann Berg Gudmundsson, an unsuccessful trialist at Chelsea, Fulham and Coventry City who's now with mid-table Eredivisie outfit AZ 67, is more typical.

How has the miracle happened? Well, as always the manager has a lot do with it. After their disastrous European Championships campaign, Iceland decided to think big and appointed Lars Lagerback as boss. Were the FAI to appoint Lars Lagerback the airwaves would no doubt turn blue from irate callers wondering why they'd given this nobody the job.

In fact, few managers have been as adept at getting teams to major tournaments as Lagerback who qualified Sweden for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and 2000, 2004 and 2008 European Championships, three of these qualifications taking place when he was joint manager with Tommy Soderberg. If he doesn't work the same trick this time at the very least he'll have come much, much closer than anyone predicted when Iceland began their campaign as the 121st-ranked team in the world, behind Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands.

Just because you don't have the players doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel.

Sunday Independent

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