7 September 2014 16:03
Iceland must contend with the burden of expectation as they begin their bid to reach a first major tournament at home to Turkey on Tuesday.
Few gave the Nordic nation a chance of realistically competing for a place at the 2014 World Cup but, after narrowly missing out on qualification, hope is high they can make it to Euro 2016.
Two teams will qualify automatically from Group A – which also features the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Latvia and Kazakhstan – with the third-placed finishers going into a play-off.
Having risen in the FIFA rankings from 131st in April 2012 to 46th, Iceland are now close behind the Turks and the Czechs with momentum in their favour.
Iceland, who unusually have co-coaches in veteran Swede Lars Lagerback and 47-year-old Icelander Heimir Hallgrimsson, have named a strong squad for their curtain-raiser in Reykjavik.
It includes in-form Swansea City midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.
Turkey, meanwhile, failed to qualify for the last three World Cups and Euro 2012.
Coach Fatih Terim will take confidence from his team winning 2-1 away to Denmark in a warm-up friendly on Wednesday, and the fact that Iceland performed better on their travels than they did at home during Brazil 2014 qualifying.
“The Denmark game has given us a major morale boost heading to Iceland,” said Terim. “Denmark are a strong team. We played very well in the second half. We played a chess match.
“Iceland are another strong team but we will go there in search of the win.”
The 2002 World Cup semi-finalists will be without influential Borussia Dortmund midfielder Nuri Sahin, who has undergone knee surgery. However, Atletico Madrid ace Arda Turan and prolific Galatasaray striker Burak Yilmaz are at Terim’s disposal.
Turkey have won four, drawn two and lost one of their seven meetings with Iceland. Their most recent contest ended in a goalless draw in Euro 1996 qualifying.