Are The Nordic Countries The World Cup’s Dark Horses?
There was a time in the 1980s and 90s when we could expect two or three teams from Britain and Ireland to reach the World Cup finals. Those days seem to have gone now, with only England and occasionally the Republic of Ireland having reached the finals in recent years from these islands. Instead, this year’s tournament will feature three teams from further north in Europe, with the Nordic countries of Iceland, Denmark and Sweden having reached Russia.
All three have featured in major tournaments previously, of course, although it is Iceland’s first trip to a World Cup finals. They did manage to beat England at Euro 2016, a memorable game which is probably the greatest result in the country’s football history. Denmark and Sweden also have a fine international pedigree, given the relative size when compared to other nations, with famous names like Michael Laudrup and Thomas Brohlin amongst their stars from the past. Here, we will take a closer look at this Nordic trio, and whether they will make a big impact at this year’s tournament in Russia.
Iceland have been on of international football’s big success stories in recent years. The country has a population of around 300,000 in total, yet around 10% of those people managed to follow the team to Euro 2016 in France.
There, they witnessed their team reach the second phase of the competition. In the knock-out phase they pulled off a real shock result, sending England home from the tournament to think again. That 2-1win in Nice really put down a marker for the team, and sent a message that this tiny Nordic nation was not to be trifled with on the football pitch.
In qualifying for Russia in 2018, the Icelanders had to overcome a series of obstacles. Star striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was injured, and Swdish coach Lars Lagerback departed. They were also in a qualifying group which included three other teams who had reached Euro 2016.
But this current Icelandic team is nothing if not determined, and, yet again, they managed to raise eyebrows across the football world and qualify for Russia. The same team that did so well in France two years ago will be in Russia in its entirety, with the exception of Sigthorsson.
Whether the fans can travel to Rostov and Volgograd in the same numbers as they travelled to France two years ago remains to be seen, but however many fans travel, their team looks set to do them proud again. They will need the support, as they face a tough group, with Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia as their opponents. They will be confident against the Croats, though, as they finished above them in their qualifying group, beating them in Iceland, but losing the away game.
Iceland are unlikely to win the World Cup, but they are a dangerous, hard-working team, whose organisation and commitment mean that no one will enjoy playing against them. Expect them to pull off at least one shock result during their journey through the tournament.
Heimir Hallgrimsson took over from Lagerback, and has continued the Swede’s good work. He favours a 4-4-2 formation, but sometimes shifts to 4-5-1.
The Everton playmaker is an influential presence in the Iceland team, which means his latest injury will be of some concern. In March, the midfielder damaged knee ligaments, though it is more than likely that he will be for the World Cup. No Everton player has created more chances than him this season, and he has also bagged seven goals in the Premier League in 2017/18. Iceland fans will be praying that he is fully fit by the time the tournament rolls round.
The Cardiff City captain has enjoyed a great season with his club side, but could be on his way out at the end of the season, after not signing a new deal. A combative midfielder, he could put himself in the shop window at the World Cup, if Cardiff do not win promotion this year.
The former Juventus defender has enjoyed a strong season with Bristol City in the English Championship. Although in the squad for Euro 2016, he did not feature in any games. The World Cup could be his chance to blossom on the international stage.
William Hill has the Iceland team priced at 250/1 to win the tournament, and at 11/1 to reach the quarter-finals. Gylfi Sigurdsson is priced at 100/1 to be the World Cup’s top scorer.
Sweden do not perhaps the glamour they have had in previous eras, with the players more likely to come from clubs in countries like Greece, Denmark and Scotland, rather than Italy, England or Spain, these days.
Nevertheless, they are still a very organised and disciplined team, with enough talent to both excite their fans and test teams at the top level. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now at LA Galaxy in the MLS, may yet come out of retirement to appear in Russia too, something which would undoubtedly boost the team’s excitement factor.
They certainly excited their fans with the manner of their qualification, beating Italy in a play-off, after finishing second in Group A behind France. Tellingly, they also finished above the Netherlands, who were in third place in the group. The Swedes beat France 2-1 in Solna, a result which probably did more than any other to secure their qualification.
They beat the Italians 1-0 on aggregate over the two legs, ensuring that one of football’s most successful international sides would not be in Russia this summer. Currently ranked at 18th in the world, according to FIFA, Sweden have a good World Cup pedigree, having reached the semi-finals four times, and the final once, back in 1958, when they hosted the tournament.
The Swedes are in Group F for the tournament, with Germany, South Korea and Mexico. They will play in Nizhny Novgorod, Sochi and Yekaterinburg. That looks a tough group on paper, but the Swedes showed in qualifying, and especially in their play-off win over Italy, that they fear no one.
Sweden are unlikely to be anyone’s tip to win the tournament, but other teams take them lightly at their peril. They are organised and disciplined, as one would expect from a Scandinavian outfit, but also possess some charismatic talent within their ranks. It would not be too surprising to see them sneak into the semi-finals, given their ability to outwit the top teams in one-off games.
Janne Andersson took over in June 2016, after a career which has seen him coach a number of Swedish domestic clubs. He favours a 4-4-2 formation, and his team will be disciplined, hard-working and with a good collective spirit in the Swedish tradition.
Players To Watch
Emil Forsberg heads into this tournament on the back of winning the German Bundesliga with RB Leipzig last season. The winger is an influential player, who offers threat from crosses and set-pieces, as well as with his general creativity.
Viktor Claesson, currently playing for FC Krasnodar in Russia, is a left-sided midfielder who can play wide or through the middle. He offers quality distribution, and offers plenty of threat with his crosses. He is also used to playing in Russia.
Marcus Berg, now playing for Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, has been the man who has replaced Ibrahimovic as the Swedes’ main striker. He hit eight goals in qualifying, and offers plenty of power when he is leading the line.
Coral have Sweden priced at 100/1 to win the World Cup. They are at 6/1 to win Group F, and 6/5 to qualify for the knock-out rounds. William Hill have them at 11/2 to reach the quarter finals.
Denmark have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2010’s tournament in South Africa, and have managed to get their nation’s population back on their side after some rocky recent times. They qualified thanks to a crushing 5-1 aggregate win over the Republic of Ireland, with all the tie’s goals coming in the second leg in Dublin.
Weeks before inflicting that humiliating home defeat on Martin O’Neill’s Ireland team, the Danes thrashed Poland 4-0 in Copenhagen. They are definitely capable of scoring goals when the mood is on them. That game was part of their successful qualification campaign, which saw them come second in Group E behind the Poles. They finished ahead of Montenegro and Romania in the group. Another notable result was their 4-1 win away from home in Armenia.
The Danes carry plenty of threat, with players like Christian Eriksen and Thomas Delaney pinpointed by coach Age Hareide as the team’s danger men. The side plays a direct style of play, and is strong at the back. Brentford’s Andreas Bjelland and the captain Simon Kjær, who plays for Sevilla in Spain’s La Liga, offer strength and stability at the heart of the defence. If either of those two are absent for any reason, then Chelsea’s Andreas Christiansen can step up, showing the kind of depth that the Danes now possess. Another player from La Liga is Pione Sisto, who trickery on the wing could be decisive factor in tight games.
Up front, Hareide can pick from Nicolai Jorgensen, Andreas Cornelius and Nicklas Bendtner, all of whom offer threat. Hareide favours a 4-3-3 formation. His team will certainly fear no one at the tournament, and, out of the three Nordic sides featured here, probably has the best chance of being successful. A run to the semi-finals is well within their capabilities, given the players in the squad, and a fair slice of good luck.
The Danes will need to get out of a group which looks tough on paper, however. They have been drawn in Group C, along with France, Australia and Peru, so will need to be at their best to secure qualification for the second stage of the competition. Their games will be in Saransk, Samara and Moscow.
Age Hareide has managed to get the Danes playing winning football again, something which has brought fans back on side. He favours a 4-3-3 system. Hareide was capped 50 times by Norway during his playing career, and played for Manchester City in England in the early 1980s. An experienced and wily coach, he is one of the squad’s assets.
Players To Watch
The Tottenham Hotspur star scored 11 goals in 12 games in qualifying, form that saw him compared to the great Michael Laudrup. His superb form in the Premier League with Spurs has seen him linked with a move to Barcelona after the World Cup. He could be one of the tournament’s brightest stars, especially if Denmark go on a good run.
The Werder Bremen midfielder, who has an Irish-American family background, is an all-round midfielder who offers both robust defensive play, and threat in attack. Box-to-box midfielders of his ilk are rare in Danish football, which perhaps explains why he is so popular with the fans. His effort and graft make him the heartbeat of the team. He was the team’s second-highest goalscorer in qualifying, netting four goals in 12 games.
The former Arsenal striker, now aged 30, and playing for Rosenborg in Norway, has enjoyed an eccentric career at times, but he still offers plenty of threat in attack at international level. With Eriksen playing just off him, the Danes have both power and guile in attack.
Paddy Power has the Danes priced at 80/1 to win the tournament, which might, in all honesty, be a little bit short. The same bookie has them at 9/2 to win Group C, which is probably not a bad bet at all, given their ability to score goals when it matters. Christian Eriksen is 100/1 with Paddy Power to be the tournament’s leading scorer. If you think the Danes can reach the final, then the same bookie has priced them at 25/1.