Wayne Rooney has told his England team-mates to relish the pressure brought by being overwhelming favourites for the must-win Euro 2016 clash against Iceland.
The French Riviera will tonight play host to a fascinating last-16 clash between the 1966 World Cup winners and the smallest country to ever appear at a major tournament.
Despite hailing from a tiny island with the same population as Leicester, Iceland have upset the apple cart both in qualifying for Euro 2016 and at the finals itself, pipping Portugal to second spot in Group F.
However, the North Atlantic nation are priced at 7-1 with bookmakers to win tonight, when captain Rooney – now at his sixth major tournament – wants England to enjoy the burden of expectation.
“Every game has a lot of pressure playing for England,” he said, speaking at the Stade de Nice on the eve of the match.
“We understand that as a team, as a group of players, and we know we are favourites to win this game. There’s no denying that.
“We’re confident we can, we will give everything and we will try to take what we’ve worked on, our game plan, into the game to give us the best chance to win it.
“I believe if we play the way we can and stick to the things we’ve worked on, we will win the game.
“If something drastic happens and we don’t stick to what we’ve worked on, even if Iceland play a different way than we are expecting, we will have to adapt quickly.
“There is pressure, of course, but it is down to us as a team to play under that pressure and enjoy it – enjoy having that pressure on us because if we win we are in the quarter-finals.”
The opponents in the last eight will be hosts France after Didier Deschamps’s side came from behind to defeat the Republic of Ireland yesterday.
Rooney believes it would be a “great game” but overcoming Iceland is his only focus, especially having seen England fail to turn domination into goals as they finished runners-up in Group B. “We’ve seen how the other games have gone, games we should have won but we didn’t so we are not taking this game lightly at all,” the 30-year-old said.
“We have to be patient. We have watched how Iceland have played (in the group games) and some games from the qualifying campaign. It will be tough.
“We will have to move the ball and make them run and hope that the gaps will be there and take advantage.”
Iceland’s organisation, work-rate and togetherness will no doubt make it a tough night, but there looks fewer better chances for Rooney to taste a second knockout win.
“There’s not many players in the squad who have got that record so hopefully it won’t affect them,” said the skipper, whose only victory came a decade ago against Ecuador in the World Cup second round.
“For me, the other tournaments have gone. It’s a new tournament and a new challenge for us as a team so it’s pointless looking back at previous games and knockout stages and how they have gone.
“I actually think we’ve been very unlucky in the two games against Portugal which I have been involved in, but we’re looking forward to the game (on Monday night) now and hopefully we’ll win.”
Hodgson says England approach the game with a “brutal focus” having so far failed to turn dominance into victories.
The enthralling comeback win against neighbours Wales was easily the Three Lions’ stand-out moment of Group B, yet the displays against Russia and Slovakia were arguably more convincing.
Both matches ended in draws due to a lack of ruthlessness that instead allowed Chris Coleman’s men to top the group, leading to a frustration that lingers ahead of the last-16 clash with Iceland.
Hodgson knows a similarly toothless display tonight could well lead to an embarrassing exit, which has prompted a renewed intensity and purpose in their preparation.
“We need to be as ruthless as we can possibly be because we know there are no prizes, unfortunately, for playing what some people might think is good football,” the England manager said.
“It’s all about winning or losing and staying in or going out, and we have been very brutal with ourselves in that respect and we have a very brutal focus.
“We made it very clear amongst ourselves that it doesn’t matter that we, in our eyes, are playing well.
“All that matters is that we haven’t won, and when you don’t win you get criticised and perhaps rightly so because there’s always a reason why you haven’t won.
“I’ve been very keen to point out to the players – although I’ve not encountered any opposition – that we’ve got to make certain that we turn what we think is domination in some games, or imposing our game onto opponents, into wins.
“If we don’t, then it’s not going to be good enough, and we’re going to be disappointed because we think we have quite a good team and we think we play good football.
“But unfortunately in a tournament, in particular, even more than in qualifying, it’s all about if you win or do you not win and as a result we didn’t win against Russia, Slovakia we didn’t win. That’s what we’ve been working on.
“(Monday) is the ultimate test because if we don’t win (on Monday) that’s the end for us.
“All our focus is on getting through that game and then we will see where it takes us because if we do get through the game then who knows? Maybe it will be give us a bit of a boost.”