Hearts star Jonsson confident Icelanders can get back on track against Switzerland

ELEVEN months after his season began in the searing heat of the Tuscan hills, Eggert Jonsson faces a make-or-break fixture tonight in the relatively tranquil surroundings of Aalborg, Denmark.

Make no mistake, Jonsson and his Icelandic Under-21 colleagues have no margin for error.

Following Saturday's opening defeat to Belarus in the European Under-21 Championship, Iceland face Switzerland this evening desperate to succeed. Should they fail, one of the pre-tournament favourites will be all but out of the competition after two group matches.

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Jonsson, after a demanding season which started last July in Italy with Hearts, could be forgiven if the prospect of elimination and a subsequent rest appealed. Yet this passionate Icelander is committed to satisfying a nation craving success at a major tournament finals. The pressure of expectation is welcomed by a player revelling in his role with the first ever Icelandic football side to reach the final stages of an international tournament.

After all the toil to qualify, including eliminating Scotland in last October's play-off, he isn't for giving up lightly. Jonsson speaks of a sense of privilege at being in Denmark, heightened by the fact that club-mate David Templeton would be there in his place with Scotland had Iceland lost that play-off tie. Tonight, Iceland simply must get it right against Switzerland and then negotiate a final group game with hosts Denmark on Saturday to reach the semi-finals.

"The whole nation will be watching," said Jonsson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. "Iceland is a pretty small country and this is the first time any Icelandic football team has made it to the finals of a tournament. Everyone is watching us. We've had a lot of attention back home in the media and everyone is excited.

"It doesn't bring extra pressure, it just gives us more motivation to be successful here. You know what it means to the people of Iceland. This is the first time they have been able to cheer on a team in the final stages of a tournament and we are all just glad to be part of that. We will be doing our best to make the whole country proud.

"Most of the players in our squad are pretty experienced and have played in big games so nothing will faze us. We have many players who, like myself, have played for the senior international team as well. It's nothing new apart from this being the finals.

"There is be a bit of pressure because now there is no margin for error. We need to be up for it. If we manage to get a good result tonight and go on from there to qualify from our group, then we have a chance to get to the Olympics in London next year."

Much like the understanding evident at Hearts between youth academy graduates like Jonsson, Templeton, Lee Wallace and Andy Driver, Iceland rely heavily on a group of youngsters bonded together since their mid-teens. Jonsson has a foot in that camp, too, alongside players from some established European clubs.

Gylfi Sigurdsson (Hoffenheim), Johann Gudmundsson (AZ Alkmaar) and Aron Gunnarsson (Coventry City) are amongst Iceland's most prosperous talents having emerged from international youth football to gather several senior caps already. Goalkeeper Haraldur Bjornsson is also a former Riccarton pupil and now plays with Valur in his homeland.

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"A lot of the players in this squad have played together since we were in Iceland's under-17 squad. The same group of players have stayed together and we are all good friends," said Jonsson. "We have a good team spirit on and off the pitch and a lot of togetherness. That is going to give us a big advantage.

"Because Iceland is pretty small, we all keep in touch and do things together when we are back home. That togetherness could be our biggest advantage. We are all willing to work for our team-mates.

"A lot of people have been texting me and sending messages. Everyone knows about it and they all want me to do well. Scotland would have been here themselves if we hadn't beaten them in the qualifiers. That's probably a bit of extra spice, that I'm here instead of some other guys from Hearts.

"All the boys at Hearts want us to do well and they've all said how good a team we have. They've maybe been a bit surprised but I think most of them probably want us to win it and will be cheering us on.

"There are a lot of good teams in the other group section. We are probably lucky the way the groups were drawn. Group B has England, Spain and Czech Republic and they are three teams who must all have a good shout of winning.

"We know all of England's players because most of them play in the Premier League. We have Denmark in our group and they are the hosts, so you imagine they will be strong."

A prospective meeting with England in the semis lies in wait for Iceland if they can recover from that unexpected opening defeat. Jonsson knows he would be guaranteed backing from Edinburgh should a contest like that transpire. "I've been in Scotland a long time but I'm always going to be Icelandic. I know everything about the rivalry between Scotland and England but I won't need that to motivate me. There will be enough motivation just to do well for the Icelandic team, we have a big task on our hands and we are ready to go."

If tiredness is an issue, Jonsson isn't for showing it. Adrenalin is kicking in as he prepares for one final push to finish this elongated campaign on a high.