By Jack Tarrant
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - Two years ago in France, Iceland shocked Europe as they reached the Euro 16 quarter-finals with performances full of perseverance, energy and a cautious defensive rigidity.
Coming into their final World Cup Group D match with already-qualified Croatia, Iceland knew they needed to win and for the result to go their way in Tuesday’s other clash in the section between Nigeria and Argentina.
In going for victory, coach Heimir Hallgrimsson threw caution to the wind and released his players from their usual solid defensive ranks as they took the game to the Croats.
Ultimately, Croatia's quality shone through as they claimed a 2-1 victory with Ivan Perisic’s late winner to take a perfect group record into their last-16 encounter with Denmark.
Iceland, making their World Cup debut as the smallest nation ever to appear at a finals, finished bottom of the section but with their heads held high after such a positive display.
Hallgrimsson’s men were typically energetic again in Rostov-on-Don and provided good preparation for the Croats, with only Denmark having covered more ground when not in possession than Iceland.
However, unlike in their first two matches against Nigeria and Argentina, it was Iceland who were on the front foot and had the best of the chances.
Croatia may have made nine changes from the team that thrashed Argentina 3-0 to secure their passage to the knockout stages, but against a team that still included Real Madrid pair Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic as well as Perisic, it was Iceland who were the more aggressive and attacking.
Iceland had 17 attempts on target to Croatia’s 13 and laid siege to the impressive Lovre Kalinic’s goal with a string of corners and trademark long throws either side of halftime.
They were especially close to scoring just before Milan Badelj’s 53rd minute opener but saw several shots blocked that could have easily been deflected in.
They also struck the crossbar from Sverrir Ingason's header with the score at 1-0.
Iceland can also count themselves unlucky that Croatia scored with their only two shots on target, although they also hit the woodwork.
For Croatia, a last-16 meeting with Denmark looks appetising and is just reward for the efforts of a talented and balanced squad.
They have arguably the strongest midfield in the tournament with the skilful Modric set to feature alongside Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic against the Danes.
However, with Kovacic given a chance to start against Iceland and Badelj getting on the scoresheet, coach Zlatko Dalic has a pleasant problem to solve going into the knockout stages.
These are riches that Iceland simply do not possess but they showed on Tuesday that they have the attacking threat, as well as the defensive organisation, to cause any team problems.
Iceland go home with the knowledge that they can mix it with the best even when they loosen the reins.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Ken Ferris)