Iceland and Croatia face off at the World Cup on Tuesday with the former’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages hanging by a thread.
A win may not be enough for them, whereas Croatia’s players can approach the game in a relaxed manner having already qualified.
Here are the key players who could tilt the tie.
Gylfi Sigurdsson v Andrej Kramaric
Sigurdsson will carry all of Iceland’s hopes on his shoulders, and even if they are the least populous country at the World Cup, that’s a heavy burden, especially as he hasn’t been at his sparkling best so far. Iceland have always emphasised the importance of the collective, but they do have a star player. He needs to deliver a win on Tuesday.
Andrej Kramaric was dropped from the starting XI for Croatia’s win over Argentina, but he’ll likely earn a recall on Tuesday with manager Zlatko Dalic expected to rest some of his star players. His combined five goals and assists during qualifying were joint-top for Croatia. The former Leicester City man is a reliable scorer but also a handy creator of goals, much like Sigurdsson.
Aron Gunnarsson v Mateo Kovacic
Iceland’s inspirational captain will want to deliver a trademark all-action performance to lead his side into the knockout stages on Tuesday. At his best Gunnarsson can be everywhere on the pitch, delivering telling crosses, driving forward from the centre, and helping his defence whenever needed. He was strangely quiet against Nigeria, and he’ll want to make amends.
Mateo Kovacic has endured a frustrating World Cup, much like his club season with Real Madrid. When Dalic opted for only two central midfielders against Nigeria, it was obvious Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric would get the nod, but seeing Marcelo Brozovic picked ahead of him as a third midfielder against Argentina must have been disheartening. With Croatia likely to rotate, this will be Kovacic’s chance to shine.
Ragnar Sigurdsson v Dejan Lovren
Ragnar Sigurdsson is a typical warrior-like Icelandic defender, and against Nigeria he showed how he’s earned that tag as he played on after suffering a serious-looking blow to the head. He’s a doubt for this crucial clash, but Iceland will hope he’s fit to play. At his best he’s the sort of vocal, commanding leader every defence needs.
Dejan Lovren’s form has improved leaps and bounds since the turn of the year, and although at club level that was put down to the arrival of Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk at Liverpool, he’s replicated that form for Croatia over the last two games. The assured performance he put up against Lionel Messi and Argentina was one the best displays of his career.
Gareth Southgate believes it would be “dangerous territory” for England to plot a favourable World Cup path, especially having seen their last major tournament end in humiliation against unfancied Iceland.
The Three Lions sealed progress to the last 16 with a match to spare after following up their last-gasp 2-1 win against Tunisia by annihilating Panama 6-1 in Nizhny Novgorod.
Belgium also qualified as a result of England’s win on Sunday, leaving Group G finely poised ahead of the pair’s meeting in Kaliningrad on Thursday.
Level on points, goal difference and goals scored, fair play may end up deciding who finishes top – a position Belgium are said to be keen to avoid.
The runners-up could well find a simpler route to the latter stages of the World Cup – but Southgate is wary of adopting that mentality with the Euro 2016 embarrassment against Iceland fresh in his mind.
“For our country, that would be a very difficult mindset to have,” the England boss said.
“We want to win every game of football we go into. I don’t know how we would go into a game not wanting to win and not wanting to play well.
“So, I think that’s dangerous territory…if we start trying to plot and predict where we might end up.
“We had a really favourable draw, we all thought, in the last tournament and it didn’t work out that way.
“I think we just have to keep playing as well as we can, keep preparing the team the right way, keep the momentum and I have to keep the squad involved. That’s the one thing I think is really important.”
Roy Hodgson failed to strike the balance between momentum and rotation two years ago in France, where his much-changed side stuttered to a goalless
draw against Slovakia and ended their group in second.
Southgate would love to head into the knockout phase with a 100 per cent record but keeping the squad happy and energy levels up will also be key against Belgium.
He continued: “We have to consider everything.
“I felt it was important for (Jamie) Vardy, (Fabian) Delph and (Danny) Rose, who have trained so well and been such an important part of the group
as more senior players.
“There were four or five others I’d have liked to get on the pitch for that same reason. Balancing that with a couple of the younger ones was a difficult decision.
“I’ve got to think through all of those things, competition for places, players who need match minutes and keeping the unity of the squad.”
Southgate will need to decide whether Dele Alli is worth risking after missing the Panama win with a slight thigh strain and how best to deal with
his star players.
Picking England captain Harry Kane is one of the decision Southgate must make after his hat-trick on Sunday took him to five goals and top of the Golden Boot rankings.
“Obviously it will be very important for Harry, so I always have to balance what’s right for the squad as well,” Southgate said.
“He’s sitting really proudly at the top. He’s gone ahead of some major, major names in English football history in terms of World Cup goals.
“That should make him incredibly proud, but he also knows the team is the most important thing and we have to make decisions that are right for
Spain boss Fernando Hierro admitted after the 2-2 draw with Morocco that his side were lucky to finish top of World Cup Group B and stressed the need for defensive improvement.
Hierro’s men were set to finish second in the pool, and face Group A winners Uruguay in the last 16, until a stoppage-time equaliser by substitute Iago Aspas.
Initially the flag was up for offside, but the goal, Spain’s second leveller of the contest, was subsequently given following a VAR review.
With a late Iran goal seeing them hold Portugal 1-1, Spain and Portugal ended up level on five points in first and second place respectively, with goals scored putting the former ahead.
And, thus, it will be hosts Russia for La Roja in the last 16 while the Portuguese take on the Uruguayans.
Hierro, having succeeded the sacked, Real Madrid-bound Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament, has overseen a 3-3 draw with Portugal, a 1-0 win over Iran, and now this result.
And he said in his post-match press conference, streamed on FIFA’s website: “This entire group was a tough one and history bore it out.
“So the first conclusion I draw is that despite all these challenges, we emerged on top, so we need to look at the silver lining, think positive.
“Obviously we can improve and there are things that definitely need to be worked on.
“We will definitely be self-critical – (conceding) five goals in three matches is not the way forward, and it’s what I’ve told my players.”
Spain had gone 1-0 down in the 14th minute when Khalid Boutaib punished a mix-up between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos, before drawing level five minutes later through Isco’s strike.
They survived scares after that when Boutaib almost took advantage of further slack defending as he was denied by David De Gea, and Nordin Amrabat’s shot hit the post, before Youssef En-Nesyri put Morocco 2-1 up in the 81st minute.