In their World Cup matchup, Iceland will look to seize on Nigeria's sense of urgency
By now, Iceland's footballing virtues have been well documented; the organization, the athleticism, the tactical self-awareness of its strengths and weaknesses. But one that is perhaps overlooked more than others is the team's ability to not dwell on past successes, and to look forward to the task in front of it.
That is among the bigger challenges facing Iceland as it prepares to face Nigeria in Volgograd on Friday. The 1-1 draw against Argentina is the latest impressive result recorded by the island nation, and Iceland has received deserved praise for coming back from a one-goal deficit against Lionel Messi & Co. But bigger goals beckon for Iceland, namely getting out of the group, a feat that it achieved at Euro 2016.
"We can't dwell on that game now," captain Aron Gunnarsson told reporters earlier this week. "If we don't focus on Nigeria and don't get a result there, then that point is no use for anyone."
Fortunately for Iceland, some stars appear to be aligning for Friday's match. Gunnarsson made it through the Argentina match despite having not played for several weeks due to a knee injury, and goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson is riding a wave of confidence after delivering a man-of-the-match performance against Argentina that included saving a penalty from Messi.
World Cup 2018 must-reads
- Make your picks with ESPN FC Match Predictor 2018!
- Welcome to the Alternative 2018 World Cup Fans' Guide
- ESPN FC's experts make their picks
- Marvel's amazing World Cup spoilers
- Revealed: World Cup 2018 Ultimate XI
- Fixtures, results and full coverage
- Team-by-team previews of all 32 nations
The Super Eagles' 2-0 defeat to Croatia also means that the onus will be on them to carry the game and push for goals.
"This is a must-win game for Nigeria, and that makes it a little bit psychologically different -- they have to win," Iceland manager Heimer Hallgrímsson told reporters. "This group is going to be decided in the last minutes, in the last game. It's going to be down to some margins, a set piece, a goal in extra time. This is how this group is going to be played."
Given Iceland's penchant for defending first and then launching counterattacks, Nigeria's sense of urgency seems likely to play into the hands of Hallgrímsson's side, though he remains modest about how his team stacks up against the Super Eagles.
But Nigeria has shown weakness in areas of Icelandic strength. One is set pieces. Both of Croatia's goals came as a result of corners, and they highlighted two areas of concern. Not only was Nigeria guilty of a lack of concentration, but it lost physical battles as well. The first goal saw Odion Ighalo lose out in an aerial duel with Ante Rebic, whose header found a wide-open Mario Mandzukic after William Troost-Ekong lost track of the Croatian attacker. Mandzukic's subsequent header deflected off of Oghenekaro Etebo and into the net.
On the second goal, Troost-Ekong's poor positioning saw him resort to a wrestling hold on Mandzukic, which was rightly whistled for a penalty that was converted by Luka Modric.
The inability to defend set pieces is not a new development for the Super Eagles. They struggled in this area in the run-up to the tournament as well, and it begs the question why this continues to be an area of weakness.
Nigeria also struggled during the moments when Croatia opted to play direct. On more than one occasion Croatian forwards knocked long passes into the path of a late-running teammate to create opportunities. One can bet that Iceland will have taken notice of both of these deficiencies and plan accordingly.
If Nigeria are to secure a win, they must find a way to create counterattacking opportunities of their own, the better to get the likes of Victor Moses and one of Ahmed Musa or Alex Iwobi into the open field running at the opposition defense. That might require dropping back into their own half when possession is lost, thus inviting Iceland forward, and having space to exploit when they win the ball back.
For that to work, Nigeria will need to show more aggression in such situations. Too often the Super Eagles failed to press the issue when presented with transition opportunities, and that will need to change against an Iceland side adept at getting numbers behind the ball.
"We are focused. We are ready. We want to win," Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel told reporters. "We know that we need a victory against Iceland to stay in the tournament and we are doing everything in training to make that happen."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.