World Cup 2018 team preview: Iceland is more than just a great story

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group D is Iceland.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and return as all 32 team previews and eight group previews roll in.

Outlook

Odds to win Group D: 9.1%
Odds to advance: 26.7%
Odds to win World Cup: 0.5%
Elo rank: 22
Yahoo Sports power rank: T-16

Our writers say: Famously, Iceland is the smallest nation to reach the World Cup. It’s a big volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with fewer than 350,000 citizens – about a fifth of Manhattan. But it punches incomprehensibly far above its weight. It came within a game of making it to Brazil in 2014. Then, it qualified for Euro 2016 and stunned England to reach the quarterfinals. But this team, coached by a former part-time dentist, remains a Cinderella story and a long shot to accomplish much. Leander Schaerlaeckens

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exagerrated)

Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 1st
Best World Cup finish: None
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group I ahead of Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey
Schedule: Argentina (Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m., Fox), Nigeria (Friday, June 22, 11 a.m., Fox), Croatia (Tuesday, June 26, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

Squad

Manager: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson (M)
Top players: Gylfi Sigurdsson (M), Alfred Finnbogason (F), Johann Berg Gudmundsson (M), Ragnar Sigurdsson (D)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: You’ll hear cliché adjectives like “well-organized” and “spirited” to describe Iceland, just as they’re used to describe any good defensive team. And they’re certainly apt. But there’s more talent here than you’d think. And the approach – defend with 10 men behind the ball, break cautiously and opportunistically, capitalize on set pieces – works. Sigurdsson’s dead-ball delivery is a perfect match for a starting 11 that’ll feature eight players above 6 feet tall.

Why they’ll lose games: They’ll struggle to keep the ball. They’ll get pinned back. And when you get pinned back, no matter how good you are, you always run the risk of defensive breakdowns, individual mistakes or flukes. As we saw in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, Iceland’s low block certainly isn’t impermeable.

How they’ll play: Iceland isn’t always uber-defensive, but against the caliber of team it’ll see in Group D, it will be. The formation is a 4-2-3-1 that’s more like a 4-5-1. It’s rigid. There isn’t always a wholehearted attempt to counter when possession changes hands. But there is a great deal of intelligence and recognition of when opportunities to get forward arise. And every corner or free kick in the attacking half is a threat.

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Hannes Thor Halldorsson; Birkir Mar Saevarsson, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Sverrir Ingi Ingason, Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson; Aron Gunnarsson, Emil Hallfredsson; Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Birkir Bjarnason; Alfred Finnbogason.

There are really only two possible changes: Kari Arnason could start ahead of Ingason at center back, and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson could be the lone striker. Or, if Iceland goes to a 4-4-2, Sigurdsson can play off the left, and some combination of Bodvarsson, Finnbogason and Bjorn Sigurdarson can play up front together.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: Uh … just about everything! As mentioned above, Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup. Its manager, as recently as two years ago, was a part-time coach and practicing dentist. The full story is simply remarkable. Oh, and they’ve got that clap:

Why to root for them: How could you not root for them?!?

Why to root against them: If you’re a Scrooge and hate fun.

If you’re going to watch one game … The opener against Argentina, in Moscow, is going to be a spectacle. Don’t miss it.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

More World Cup from Yahoo Sports:
2018 World Cup preview hub
FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit
Ramadan dilemma for World Cup-bound Muslim players: faith or football?
USMNT’s qualifying failure, as told by the two coaches responsible