Iceland and Croatia go into their final group games of the World Cup in differing moods.
While Croatia are buoyant after having sealed qualification for the Round of 16 with a stunning 3-0 win over Argentina, Iceland are facing elimination even if they beat their European rivals on Tuesday.
Here’s a look at the talking points ahead of the game.
ICELAND FACE BIGGEST TEST
Iceland have never played a game like this before. The qualifying playoff for the 2014 World Cup comes closest in terms of pressure on a single game or tie – ironically against Croatia – but needing a win to qualify for the knockout stages at the tournament proper is a different kettle of fish.
They were in a similar position at Euro 2016 heading into their final group game, which they won 2-1 against Austria, so at least they know they can deliver. On paper Croatia are tougher opponents, although, having already qualified for the Round of 16, they’ve already confirmed that they’re going to rest some of their star players.
Iceland will also face scoreboard pressure, as a big win is their best chance of making it out of the group stage. Do everyone’s favourite underdogs have it in them to run up the score against a strong side?
Added to that, they’ll have to adjust to whatever is going on in the Nigeria-Argentina game. If Nigeria are winning – and thus knocking Iceland out – will they be able to keep from letting their heads get down?
Being on this stage was a dream come true for Iceland, but a game like this will make them face the realities of the big-time.
MOMENTUM VS REST THE DILEMMA FOR CROATIA
Speaking of Croatia resting players, just how far will that go? They’re not only guaranteed a spot in the Round of 16, they’ll almost certainly go through as group winners – they have a five-goal cushion against Nigeria in the goal difference column, so even if they lose and the Super Eagles win, it will take big margins in both games for Croatia to slip to second.
Their decision to field a weaker side has met with criticism from the Nigeria camp – as it would, given that if Nigeria draw against Argentina, they’ll need Croatia to beat or at least draw against Iceland. But that is hardly Zlatko Dalic’s problem.
The Croatia manager’s bigger concern, apart from avoiding injuries and suspensions, is the risk of losing the momentum they’ve built up over their two group stage wins, especially after their superb victory over Argentina.
Would he rather give his regulars some game time to keep them sharp, or back them to be refreshed and at their best in the Round of 16?
TIME FOR SIGURDSSON TO LEAVE HIS MARK
This was meant to be Gylfi Sigurdsson’s moment. Iceland’s star player has been building up to the World Cup ever since he helped secure their qualification, and he even followed in Neymar‘s footsteps by managing his return from a late-season injury in order to be close to full fitness.
Sigurdsson has been compared to another modern great during his career, and he and Lionel Messi do have something in common at the moment: missing vital penalties.
The Iceland man benefitted from Messi’s miss, as keeper Hannes Holldorsson save from the Argentine’s spot-kick protected a 1-1 draw, but Sigurdsson’s miss was arguably bigger. Had he scored, his side would have halved their deficit to Nigeria, putting them on the comeback trail or, at the very least, improving their goal difference.
Instead, they’re two behind Nigeria on that front, and now even a win on Tuesday won’t guarantee their spot in the last 16. Ideally they also get a narrow Argentina win over Nigeria, but their best hope is to win by as many goals as possible.
For that, they’ll need Sigurdsson to deliver. He has come alive in flashes but it’s time for him to leave an indelible mark on the world’s biggest stage.