Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 29 May 2016

Iceland show the way for Northern Ireland in qualifying

Telegraph Sport: where the debate starts

With Eamonn Sweeney

Published 16/09/2013

Gareth McAuley shows his frustration against Luxembourg
Gareth McAuley shows his frustration against Luxembourg

Anyone peddling the line that a poor World Cup qualifying campaign is excusable because 'we just don't have the players' should ponder the heroic exploits of Iceland.

Seeded sixth out of six before Group E began, Iceland currently lie in second place, a point ahead of Slovenia. And with their next game a home tie against bottom-placed Cyprus on October 11, they have a very decent chance of making the play-offs.

Iceland put themselves in contention by coming back from 4-1 down to draw 4-4 against group leaders Switzerland and then beating Albania 2-1 at home.

This is unaccustomed territory for the land of sagas, volcanic islands and Bjork. Iceland have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament, hardly surprisingly given that the country's population of 323,180 is about 200,000 less than greater Belfast.

How has the miracle happened? Well, as always the manager has a lot do with it.

After their disastrous European Championships campaign, Iceland decided to think big and appointed Lars Lagerback, who qualified Sweden for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and 2000, 2004 and 2008 Euros, three of these qualifications as joint manager with Tommy Soderberg.

If he doesn't work the same trick this time at the very least he'll have come much, much closer than anyone predicted when Iceland began their campaign as the 121st ranked team in the world, behind Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands.

Just because you don't have the players doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel.

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