Iceland suffered its Ragnarok: The brutal end to a beautiful journey at Euro 2016.
PARIS – So this is Ragnarök. The end of the world, when it came, was brutal. Iceland, charmed and charming, had won friends and admirers in reaching the quarterfinal of its first international tournament, glorying in a national celebration that none of the 40,000 or so fans who have come to France to support their nation will ever forget, but its exit was crushing. As the Poetic Edda Völuspá has it, “Black become the sun's beams in the summers that follow.”
What should be remembered is not how the journey ended but how it felt on the road.
France, having taken the lead with an early Olivier Giroud goal, was ruthless. Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann added further goals before halftime. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Birkir Bjarnason restored a measure of Icelandic pride, their goals coming on either side of a second for Giroud.
After all those games of poor first halves salvaged by improvements after the break, after all those late goals–these were the first first-half goals France had scored in the tournament–this was by some way France’s most impressive performance of the tournament. How much that means against an Iceland side that rapidly looked fatigued and demoralized is another matter.
The 4-2-3-1 that had brought the turnaround against Ireland was retained, but with Moussa Sissoko on the right. It’s not clear exactly where N’Golo Kante will fit in when he returns from suspension for the semifinal against Germany. Using Griezmann centrally meant he was close enough to Giroud to capitalize on most of his knockdowns, while still leaving Payet in space out on the left. Sissoko was quieter and might not retain his place if Kingsley Coman, who came on for Payet with 10 minutes to go, is fully fit for the semifinal. Or, of course, Deschamps could return to the 4-3-3 with Kante available again.
As the world has been carried away on the Iceland story, it hasn’t been fashionable to point out that, along with their organization and prodigious team spirit, it has also ridden its luck.
Before this game, as well as having the lowest possession and pass completion stats of any of the 24 teams in the tournament, Iceland had also conceded the most shots while having the third fewest.
In a sense, it’s irrelevant alongside the greater narrative of its remarkable progress, of the way it has made its side more than the sum of its parts, but no side, no matter how determined or resolute, can battle against stats like that forever.
Iceland may play an old-school 4-4-2, and it may look to absorb pressure, but it does not sit as deep as that implies. The line at times come high, and, if there is no pressure on the ball as it does so, that renders Iceland extremely vulnerable. On two occasions Cristiano Ronaldo nearly exploited the space behind the back four in Iceland’s 1-1 draw with Portugal and it was a simple ball over the top that led to the foul on Raheem Sterling that brought England a penalty in the round of 16.
Here, 12 minutes in, Blaise Matuidi chipped a perfectly weighted pass over the top, Giroud ran on and hit a low finish through the legs of goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson. Seven minutes later, Pogba rose and hung in the box, brushing Jon Dadi Bodvarsson aside, to power in Griezmann’s corner.
With that, the game was as good as done.
Long before halftime there were Mexican waves rolling round the stands. Everybody knew the game was done, even the Icelandic fans, who joined in as though determined to enjoy themselves whatever the result. It was probably just as well. Payet added a third with a low drive from just outside the box after 44 minutes before Griezmann ran onto to Giroud’s throughball to dink a fourth and finish off a 14-pass move.
The second half had the sense almost of an exhibition. France understandably eased off, and that allowed Iceland a rather happier finale than had seemed likely at halftime. Sigthorsson pulled one back after 56 minutes, turning in a Gyfli Sigurdsson cross, but before there could be even the slightest thought of a comeback, Giroud had headed his second to restore the four–goal margin.
There was also a remarkable reaction save from Hugo Lloris to keep out a Sverrir Ingason header, and Birkir Bjarnason headed in an Ari Skulason cross to make it 5-2 with seven minutes remaining. By then, though, it was all academic. There was even time for Iceland to bring on the 37-year-old Eidur Gudjohnsen for the final six minutes, giving him a second brief taste of tournament football in what will probably be his final game for his country.
The damage had long since been done, the magic drained from the dream.
For Iceland this is just how stories end:
“It sates itself on the life-blood
of fated men,
paints red the powers' homes
with crimson gore.”