Surprise packets Hungary and Iceland clash in last-16 hunt


Marseille (AFP) – Two Euro 2016 surprise packets face off in Marseille on Saturday, with Group F leaders Hungary taking on Iceland, who kept Cristiano Ronaldo at bay in their opener.

Absent from a major tournament since 1986 and the European Championships since 1972, Hungary finished below Northern Ireland and Romania in qualifying and only reached France with a playoff win.

With expectations low, the unfancied Magyars stunned fancied Austria with a 2-0 win, their first victory at the tournament since 1964. They would secure a last-16 berth if they beat Iceland.

“The players played out of their skins,” said Hungary’s German coach Bernd Storck, who had previously described just qualifying for the tournament as a “miracle”.

In their tournament debut, the gritty Atlantic islanders, who finished ahead of Turkey and the Netherlands in qualifying, went a goal down against Portugal.  

But thanks to dogged defence and midfielder Birkir Bjarnason’s goal, their first ever at a major tournament, Iceland avoided defeat and thwarted Ronaldo’s bid to become the first player to score in four European Championship finals.

– Outsiders euphoria –

“Iceland are a good team and played a lot of long balls, which caused us problems,” said the Portuguese goalscorer Nani.

The tiny Nordic island nation of 330,000 people, is the smallest country by population ever to feature at a Euro finals.

“We managed to do what we’re best at doing, which is working together and closing the space,” said Iceland’s burly goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.

“We can’t afford to have our heads in the clouds after this result, we have to get our feet back on the ground and think of Hungary,” he said.

Up against more vaunted opposition in Group F, both teams previously viewed this tie as their best opportunity to get a win and a chance of progressing as one of the best third-placed teams.

But after the openers, both teams’ confidence is soaring. 

Hungary’s shock result against Austria brought thousands of people onto the streets of Budapest to celebrate. About 15,000 Magyar fans are expected to attend the clash at the Stade Velodrome.  

“A crucial match now comes, we can qualify from the group,” striker Nemanja Nikolics told reporters at the team’s base on Thursday.

Amid the euphoria, Andreas Moeller, Storck’s assistant and 1990 World Cup winner with Germany, sounded a note of caution.

“The win against Austria was a good start but we have achieved nothing yet,” he said. 

“It was a stepping stone that can help in the next match, we have to get ourselves worked up again, an intensive match awaits us”.

With 27,000 fans having bought tickets for the tournament, Iceland will not lack support in Marseille either.

The draw against Ronaldo’s men will have settled their nerves, and now a slot in the next round is within reach.

“We proved we belong at  this level” said midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson.

“One win will probably be enough to advance, but we want to finish it as soon as possible and win the next game to make sure of it,” he told UEFA.com

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