Rooney on red alert over Iceland threat

Nice (France) (AFP) – England captain Wayne Rooney has pledged that his side will take Iceland as seriously as any opponent when their paths converge in Monday’s Euro 2016 last 16 tie in Nice.

For Iceland, whose population of 330,000 makes them the smallest country to qualify for a major tournament, the game provides a chance to score one of the biggest upsets in football history.

For England, haunted by 50 years of failure since their 1966 World Cup triumph, the match is a new football minefield and Rooney insisted that there was no sense of relief when he learned Iceland would be the opponent.

“For me it’s no different, whether it’s Portugal or Iceland we have to go out and win the game,” said the Manchester United striker turned midfielder.

“It’ll be a different kind of game, but it will be as difficult as facing Portugal. We’re not going into this game showing a lack of respect for Iceland. We’re showing full respect.

“We appreciate the way they’ve played. They’ll be difficult to break down and it’ll be up to us to create chances, score goals and win the match.”

A glamour quarter-final at Stade de France against hosts France awaits the victors, but England’s group-stage travails means they cannot afford to look that far ahead.

Held 1-1 by Russia in their opening game, they edged Wales 2-1 courtesy of a stoppage-time Daniel Sturridge goal, only for a 0-0 draw with Slovakia to condemn them to the more daunting half of the tournament draw.

England manager Roy Hodgson is likely to be out of a job if his team fail to go through, but the 68-year-old said this week: “I am not even contemplating going out to Iceland.”

Roundly criticised for making six changes to his starting XI against Slovakia, Hodgson is expected to restore Rooney, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to his line-up.

– ‘Already winners’ –

But his attacking configuration remains problematic. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling disappointed in England’s first two games, but Sturridge and Jamie Vardy, decisive against Wales, failed to impress against Slovakia.

There is little mystery about how Iceland will set themselves up, having secured a second-place finish in Group F with a low defensive bloc and clinical counter-attacks.

After earning the scorn of Cristiano Ronaldo by holding Portugal to a 1-1 draw, a late own goal gave away a 1-1 draw with Hungary and Iceland needed a dramatic 2-1 win over Austria to secure a last 16 place.

Arnor Traustason’s 94th-minute winner — deliriously described by Icelandic television commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson — put Iceland into the draw’s thorny bottom half.

But where England will see only danger in Nice, Iceland’s coaching team of Lars Lagerback — a former protege of Hodgson’s during the latter’s time in Sweden in the 1970s — and Heimir Hallgrimsson see only opportunity.

Defeat for England would rank alongside their 1-0 loss to the part-timers of the United States at the 1950 World Cup and Hallgrimsson has set his sights on making history.

“They’ve already won the hearts of all Icelandic people for their performances,” he said of his team, who were ranked 112th in the world in 2010.

“With a good performance against England tomorrow, they’ll always be winners in my book.

“On the other hand, if we beat England, their lives will change forever, and significantly. Icelandic football will go up in reputation and the way we approach football will be different.

“It’ll all look different for us. If you want the best out of life, you have to be ready when the chance is there for you.

“There aren’t bigger chances than this for Icelandic football. It’s just up to the players to play tomorrow and hopefully we will beat England. But whichever way this goes, these players are winners already.”

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