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Croatian novice takes on Iceland's old master

Updated: 2013-11-15 07:43
By Reuters in Reykjavik ( China Daily)

A coaching novice takes on a wily veteran when Croatia meets Iceland in the first leg of its World Cup playoff in Reykjavik on Friday.

The Nordic nation is in touching distance of a first appearance in a major finals.

Iceland's Swedish coach, Lars Lagerback, brings a wealth of major tournament experience to the home side while, in contrast, Croatia coach Niko Kovac has been thrown in at the deep end after Igor Stimac was dismissed last month.

Lagerback, 65, took Sweden to the finals of five major championships during an 11-year stint, first as an assistant and then as head coach.

He also led Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and the Icelandic soccer faithful hope he can deliver it to the promised land of a major finals for the first time.

Kovac's coaching history is modest by comparison.

He was only appointed as Croatia's Under-21 coach in January before stepping up when Stimac was fired after taking just one point from its final four qualifiers and ending up in the playoffs.

Lagerback has been blessed while leading Iceland because a golden generation of Under-21 players has graduated to the senior team.

Many of them took part in the European Under-21 championship in Denmark in 2011, and the squad is now peppered with players playing for big-name European clubs.

"We'll play our game and, like I've done with Sweden and Nigeria, we'll look at their strengths and possible weaknesses and then prioritize certain things in our game," Lagerback said.

"In the playoffs it's a little special as you have a home and away match, and away goals count double.

"If we can keep a clean sheet then they have to score twice as many goals as us in the away game.

"I believe in well-organized play on both defense and attack," he said, indicating Iceland will be no different from any other team he has managed: organized defensively and very hard-working.

But so far Lagerback's squad has looked suspect on defense, yielding 15 goals in qualifying to tie Cyprus with the worst defensive record in Group E.

Luckily, it also tied with top side Switzerland with 17 goals for the best offensive record, and Lagerback is confident his side can continue to score against Croatia.

Leading the line will be Kolbeinn Sigthorsson of Ajax Amsterdam, who has netted 13 goals in 19 internationals and is a constant threat up front.

On the bench, veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen, currently with Club Bruges, will be hoping for a victorious end to what will be the last major qualifying campaign for the 35-year-old former Barcelona, Chelsea and Monaco striker.

If Iceland succeeds, Gudjohnsen will almost certainly be part of the squad in Brazil before calling it quits on his international career.

Croatia will miss leftback Ivan Strinic in both legs through an abdominal injury and Danijel Pranjic, who has been recalled after a 16-month absence, is likely to fill in unless Kovac decides to reshuffle the back four.

(China Daily 11/15/2013 page24)

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