Saint-Étienne (France) (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal open their Euro 2016 campaign on Tuesday eager to avoid slipping-up against minnows Iceland and aiming to emulate their run to the European Championship semi-finals four years ago.
Portugal lost to eventual winners Spain on penalties in the semi-finals of Euro 2012 and have arrived in France determined to win Group F and book their place in the knock-out stages.
First they must negotiate their way past surprise-package Iceland, who beat the Netherlands home and away in qualifying as the Dutch failed to reach Euro 2016.
The tiny North Atlantic island nation of 330,000 people is making their debut at a major tournament and is the smallest country by population ever to feature at a European Championship.
Former Chelsea and Barcelona forward Eidur Gudjohnsen, 37, has come out of retirement to be part of the Icelandic squad.
Now plying his trade in Norway with Molde, the veteran said it will be a “dream come true” when Iceland face Portugal, who trounced Estonia 7-0 in a warm-up game last Wednesday.
Ronaldo netted twice before coming off at half-time and Iceland’s Swedish co-manager Lars Lagerback said his side must ensure a quiet night for Real Madrid’s superstar forward.
– Back from holiday –
“I saw him play for 45 minutes against Estonia. I’m not sure he was really on holiday before but he recharged his batteries, both physically and mentally,” said Lagerback.
“You can expect the best from him — but not against us.”
Portugal won their qualifying group by bouncing back from a shock 1-0 defeat to Albania in their opening game to win all of their remaining matches and top their group.
Now winger Vierinha says the star-studded Portugal squad need to again show what they can do on the European stage.
“Everyone knows our objective is to win Euro 2016, but we have to go step by step,” said Wolfsburg’s Vierinha.
“The players know what they have to do: beat Iceland, then Austria, then Hungary. We know our qualities and we have to show this on the pitch.”
The 30-year-old says Portugal must justify their tag as group favourites.
“We played very well in the build-up and we know that people consider us the favourites in the group, but we have to show that we are better than the other teams,” he said.
First up, Portugal needs to subdue a resilient Iceland in Saint Etienne.
The current team’s rise is the result of an ambitious plan, which Iceland’s football association (KSI) started 15 years ago, to build over 150 small artificial indoor arenas on the island.
It ensured football could be played without interruption through the long Icelandic winter and saw the junior side dubbed the ‘indoor kids’ in qualifying for the 2011 European U-21 finals.
The Icelandic team has a strong team spirit.
“The main key is the mentality of the Iceland players,” said FC Basel midfielder Birkir Bjarnason.
“We are hard working, we don’t give up.
“Many of us have been together for ten years, started together in the U-17s.”
Iceland warmed up for the Euro with a 4-0 trouncing of minnows Lichtenstein last Monday.
Real Sociedad striker Alfred Finnbogason is coming off the back of a successful loan spell at Augsburg where he scored seven goals in 14 German league games.
And Iceland’s captain and midfield general, Cardiff City’s Aron Gunnarsson, is raring to go.
“I’ve done some extra work, which was something I was lacking in our warm up games, but my form is in a good place and I’m just looking forward to the game,” said the 27-year-old.
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