Can Iceland qualify for the World Cup in Brazil?

Ranked 121st in the world when the draw for qualification was made back in back July 2011, Iceland’s World Cup campaign was meant to be well over as we entered the finishing straight of qualification – yet with a game to go they are genuine contenders to make the play-offs.

They currently occupy second spot in their group, needing to better Slovenia’s result if they are to progress to a make or break double header in November. Undoubtedly Iceland have been aided by what is possibly one of the poorest groups you are ever likely to see, with Norway remarkably despite making no major tournament since 1998 coming in as the top seeds, they joined by Switzerland, Cyprus and Albania – hardly terrifying.

The Swiss barely able to believe their luck have been the dominant force throughout and clinched their place in Brazil on Friday, but outside of them with the exception of Cyprus the rest have been locked in an intense battle for second spot. Both Albania and Norway saw their campaigns fall away at the weekend, losing to Switzerland and Slovenia respectively.

Iceland who came out the lowest pot of teams when the draw was made, travel to Norway in their final contest – a tricky proposition no doubt, but the Slovenians task of winning in Switzerland looks even tougher. The danger for Iceland is that Slovenia are in prime form, picking up four successive qualifying wins, whilst they can also call on recent experiences that saw them qualify for the World Cup in 2010.

Iceland’s form though is also fairly strong with seven points coming from their last three games, including fighting back from 4-1 to draw with the Swiss and claiming a solid under pressure win over Cyprus last time out – a game where they had to wait until the hour to make the break through.

Appointing Lars Lagerback has proved pivotal to their successful campaign thus far, a man who took his native Sweden to a historic five successive major tournaments between 2000 and 2008 – which suggests that in appointing him the Icelandic FA pulled off quite a coup, with his only slight blemish on the international stage coming with a poor spell managing Nigeria. Undoubtedly he is man who knows how to qualify sides and whilst Iceland are not quite as talent blessed as Sweden, there was no reason to suggest he would not be able to transfer his skills and at least get Iceland in the mix for qualification. It is perhaps surprising that there were not stronger suitors for his signature – how Scotland might now wish they had appointed the organised Swede when he was linked to them a few years back.

Lagerback has been helped by possessing one of the stronger Icelandic squads in recent times. Ok so it is hardly a golden generation near the scale of say Belgium and there are plenty of players within the squad plying their trade either domestically or in lower leagues abroad, that said they can call on several quality player –  a luxury that in the past they did not possess. Gylfi Sigurdsson is perhaps the most familiar name to British fans, whilst Aron Gunnarsson is a regular for Premier League new boys Cardiff. They can also call on several individuals who compete in Holland, most notably Johann Berg Gudmundsson who scored a hat-trick in that game against Switzerland. Lagerback has clearly injected the required belief into what is a solid group of players – belief that is only growing when you look at their most recent results, particularly that famous 4-4 in Bern.

Picking up points in Norway is not out of the question, after all Norway’s hopes were ended with a resounding 3-0 loss in Slovenia a couple of days ago – which could mean they don’t quite have the fight in them that they might of. The danger of course for Iceland is that they are so close to history that the pressure could have an effect, even if you could also argue they have nothing to lose – the calming influence and experience of Lagerback should at least assist them here.

Undoubtedly they have been boosted by that earlier mentioned kind draw but Iceland have been brilliant opportunists – let’s face it this is not a nation who are going to get ample qualification opportunity. For a side who have failed to pick up more than eight points in their last three qualification campaigns their progress is sensational. They might just need a helping hand from Switzerland when push comes to shove, which should not be out of the question taking into account that the Swiss remain unbeaten and will not want to let that record slip.

Iceland might be on the verge of creating one of the great stories of Brazil 2014 by just being there – should they make it they would be the smallest nation ever to take part. All this you could argue is premature, for the playoff draw could yet deal them a poor hand but if their luck of the draw holds out then a major tournament debut could be on the horizon.