Norway’s national football team (landslaget) narrowly beat Nordic rival Iceland 2-1 in the opening match of their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, thanks to goals by two players that were their first for their country.
Brede Hangeland, who plays professionally for Fulham (PicApp photo, top) and rookie Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue, now playing for Hannover, (PicApp photo, bottom) saved their team after an almost embarrassing first half that left coach Egil “Drillo” Olsen shaking his head and saying he couldn’t believe it was his team playing.
Travelling to Reykjavik with high expectations, landslag fans witnessed a rare Norwegian footballing first – Drillo had picked the same 11 players to start in two consecutive matches for the first time in his 103 games in charge of the national side.
His 4-5-1 formation saw the emerging young wonderkid Moa, who recently transferred away from Oslo club Vålerenga to Germany’s Hannover, start on his own up front with support from the star of Norway’s recent triumph over France, Eric Huseklepp, playing in his favoured position just behind the lone striker.
Despite missing iconic forward John Carew through injury, Norway’s line-up included proven continental performers like Roma’s John Arne Riise and Fulham’s Hangeland. Together with Iceland missing the legendary presence of former Chelsea and Barcelona man Eiður Guðjohnsen in an otherwise weak squad, all expectations pointed to a good result for Norway.
Iceland took the lead
There were few clear-cut chances for either side in the first half, although the home side had the better of the early play in the face of an uninspiring opening from the Norwegians.
The Icelanders’ more adventurous style was rewarded by a goal after 38 minutes, as experienced forward Heidar Helguson connected with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s cross inside the six-yard box, slotting skilfully into the right corner of the net with his heel beyond the grasp of Norwegian goalkeeper Jon Knudsen.
The few remaining minutes of the half saw Norway shocked into more enterprising action, but the score remained 1-0 to the hosts when the half-time whistle blew. A visibly more determined landslag emerged from the dressing room after the break, but the second half began as uneventfully as the first.
Norway had a couple of efforts on goal, with Kjetil Waehler drawing a save from Icelandic goalkeeper Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson, and Iceland’s Aron Gunnarsson being called into action to block Tom Høgli’s shot. But it was the cultured left foot of John Arne Riise that delivered the equalizer Norway craved on the hour mark: His in-swinging corner was met at the back post by the towering head of captain Brede Hangeland, who duly powered in from close range for his first international goal.
Iceland’s players pleaded with the referee to disallow the goal for an alleged foul by Hangeland on goalkeeper Gunnleifsson, but their shouts were to no avail and the Norwegians were well and truly back in the game.
Moa’s magic moment
The proud Icelandic team continued their own determined performance after conceding, creating a number of half-decent chances despite having given away their lead. Ultimately, however, any hope of achieving a result their endeavour arguably deserved was crushed by a second Norwegian goal in the 75th minute, and there were no surprises for guessing its source.
Moa had clearly read the script and wrote his way into newspaper headlines with his long-awaited first international goal, turning wonderfully with his back to goal and bamboozling the defender before finishing neatly into the right corner of the net.
The final quarter of the match, like much of the game, saw little in the way of memorable action, and Norway held on for an important opening win in their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. The match will be remembered for a gritty Icelandic display on a chilly night in Reykjavik that Norway did well to come away from with a win.
Norway now faces a considerably tougher qualifying match back home in Oslo on Tuesday against Portugal, which unexpectedly drew 4-4 with Cyprus in their remarkable first qualifier. Norwegian coach Drillo, who has said he’ll retire from coaching after Euro 2012, was quick to comment after Friday’s match that he wished to “put this behind us” and prepare for the next challenge.
Following the precious win in Iceland, and with the prospect of John Carew returning to partner a reinvigorated Moa up front, Norwegian fans will nevertheless expect great things from their team during the long and arduous road to Euro 2012.