Iceland optimistic about WCup qualifying
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP)
For Gylfi Sigurdsson, the dream of playing at the World Cup is within reach.
The Icelandic midfielder and his teammates face a potentially historic World Cup playoff match against Croatia on Tuesday night that could advance the Nordic nation of 320,000 to its first major soccer tournament.
Iceland faces Croatia in Zagreb following a 0-0 draw at home last week. Iceland could become the nation with the lowest population to appear at soccer's top tournament.
''We came with clear goal: to reach the World Cup,'' Sigurdsson said Monday. ''We are prepared to make it and reach the top of our football careers.''
Iceland, ranked as low as No. 131 last year and now 46th, will have to overcome pressure of a strong Croatian team, led by Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandzukic. And the Croats expect about 40,000 home fans at Maksimir Stadium.
''Croatia is still a favorite to advance, but this is the game where better team does not win every time,'' Sigurdsson said.
The stunning success of Iceland's team coincided with the appointment of coach Lars Lagerback in October 2010.
At one stage, the team was ranked below Liechtenstein, but Lagerback's experience of guiding his native Sweden to two straight World Cups has been evident, and Iceland finished second behind Switzerland in Group A of European qualifying.
''Playing at home, everybody expects them to win, so I think the pressure is much, much more on the Croatian team than our team,'' Lagerback explained. ''As I said to the players, I think we are in a win-win situation. We have nothing to lose. We must give a very good performance and if we do that we have a chance to qualify for Brazil. I am aware that Croatia will try to pressure from the start, but it also comes with potential hazards,'' he said. ''If we score, it would be tough for them then.''
Last Friday in Reykjavik, Iceland overcame the second-half ejection of Olafur Skulason to hold on for the draw.
''Surely we wanted to score in Reykjavik at least once, but we feel it was huge to keep 0-0 after playing 40 minutes having one man less on the pitch,'' Sigurdsson said.
Although Croatia lost consecutive home games to Scotland and Belgium, and managed only one point in its last four qualifiers, Iceland's optimism appeared to irritate the Croats.
Croatia was a World Cup semifinalist in 1998 and qualified for seven pf nine major tournament after becoming an independent state in 1991.
''Iceland is very solid team, but I feel quality is on our side, on every part of the pitch,'' Croatia forward Ivica Olic said. ''I am aware that they are high on expectations, full of enthusiasm, but to be honest, I have no idea where their optimism comes from. We are better team, we will score more than once, we will win and go to Brazil.''
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.