Iceland punish Portugal to take point on big tournament bow
Birkir Bjarnason takes advantage of poor defending to equalise Nani’s first-half strike
Iceland’s Birkir Bjarnason celebrates after scoring in the Euro 2016 Group F game against Portugal at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Étienne. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/ Livepic
There were five minutes remaining in Saint-Étienne when the old Manchester United team-mates Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo teamed up to break Icelandic hearts. Nani crossed, Ronaldo prepared to make history as the first player to score in four consecutive European Championships but headed straight into the hands of Hannes Halldorsson. The roar that emanated from those in blue behind the Iceland goal said it all. They knew. Iceland have arrived in style.
Portugal dominated as expected and, while the points were shared, the glory belonged exclusively to the compact, belligerent and committed team of Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson. A truly stunning entry onto the international arena. Iceland started brightly and never faltered after Nani had swept Fernando Santos’s team into a first-half lead. Birkir Bjarnason’s leveller and Ronaldo’s late miss combined to ignite delirium among a vibrant Iceland following.
The smallest nation to appear at a European Championship was backed by the tournament’s largest support, proportionally that is. Around 10 per cent of Iceland’s 330,000 population is expected in France and those at the country’s debut in Saint-Étienne were in fine form. It helped that the team they had travelled to support showed they would not be overawed, intimidated or negative from the very start. Portugal required all of their competition experience and quality to contain a vibrant opening before gaining the edge.
Joint head coach Lagerback has backed Iceland to qualify from a group also containing Hungary and Austria. His confidence clearly transmitted to his players who pressed Portugal relentlessly and sought to break at every opportunity. The captain, Aron Gunnarsson, snapped legitimately into Ronaldo inside 10 seconds and Gylfi Sigurdsson almost gave the outsiders a stunning lead from their first attack.
Attacking quickly and in numbers down the flanks was a feature of the Iceland performance. The Swansea City midfielder was released down the left, cut inside Danilo Pereira and stung Rui Patricio’s palms as Ricardo Carvalho closed in. Sigurdsson had a second bite from the rebound but Portugal’s goalkeeper denied him again.
The pace of Portugal’s front two, Ronaldo and Nani, was an obvious threat to an Iceland defence that conceded only six goals in qualifying, three of those after their remarkable place in France was secured. Their authority was imposed gradually. Danilo had a header deflected wide, the right back Vieirinha forced Iceland’s goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson to save at the second attempt with a left-footed drive from distance and a poor defensive header by Birkir Saevarsson almost cost his side dearly. Ronaldo gathered possession on the left and delivered an inch-perfect cross onto the head of Nani, who seemed certain to score only for his effort to cannon clear off the legs of Halldorsson.
Iceland did not go into retreat but the danger from Portugal grew with every raid. Ronaldo sent a glancing header over and then failed to connect with Pepe’s long ball over the head of Kari Arnason, Halldorsson clawing clear. He would have no such luck with the next attack. Pepe picked out André Gomes who flicked a lovely first time pass out to Vieirinha on the right touchline and then crossed low into the goalmouth from the right back’s return. There was Nani, arriving unmarked to steer a finish inside Halldorsson’s near post.
Iceland’s problem was not simply the growing menace from Ronaldo, revelling in space on his record-equalling 127th appearance for Portugal, but the struggle to retain possession for a meaningful length of time. The outsiders completed 66 passes in the first half compared to Portugal’s 277 yet brought parity to the only statistic that counts when they equalised shortly after the restart.
For Santos, a coach renowned for his defensive work, it was a shockingly complacent goal to concede. Iceland were deep in Portuguese territory on the right yet their players backed off and allowed Johann Gudmundsson to check back onto his left foot and size up a tempting cross to the back post. Bjarnason was completely unmarked when the ball sailed over Vieirinha and, with a side-foot volley beyond Patricio, he wrote himself into the history books with Iceland’s first goal at a European Championship finals. Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was in disbelief. As were Portugal.
The onus was now on a country that has never failed to reach the quarter-finals of a European Championship to break down one making its bow. Easier said then done against a side coached by former Sweden manager Lagerback and whose defensive prowess was a major reason for their presence in France.
Gomes, a polished performer, went close when he cut onto his favoured left foot on the edge of the penalty area and forced the Iceland goalkeeper to tip his shot wide. Halldorsson also scrambled clear from Nani at the near post, watched on as the former Manchester United winger flicked a Raphaël Guerreiro free-kick a fraction wide and produced another important stop when substitute Renato Sanches and Gomes combined to release Ricardo Quaresma on the right. The substitute’s ambitious shot deflected towards Halldorsson’s near post but the keeper reacted well.