Norway’s national football team (landslaget) pulled off a surprise 1-0 victory Tuesday night in their Euro 2012 qualifier against highly rated Portugal with an organized and energetic performance in Oslo. Once again, a young player from Bergen was the hero of the night.
Erik André Huseklepp, who also scored in a friendly match against France last month, nailed the goal that gave Norway the stunning victory. Head coach Egil “Drillo” Olsen was a master of understatement in calling the result “veldig deilig” when it was all over. He commended his players for mounting “a good defense” and maintaining control.
The victory sparked jubilation in a festive and packed Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo, and adds lots of momentum to Drillo’s run towards the European championships, which got off to a good start in Iceland last week.
The promising winger Huseklepp capitalized on a disastrous Portuguese goalkeeping error to give Norway their first-ever win over Portugal. Indeed, the Portuguese displayed little of their true ability and the body language of their players and coaches throughout – a stark contrast to the delirious Norwegian celebrations at full-time – betrayed a once-powerful footballing nation bereft of confidence.
Debate, concussion and turmoil
Debate surrounded the match before kick-off, when Drillo picked striker John Carew, returning after injury, ahead of the hero of the 2-1 win over Iceland four days earlier, Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue. Despite Carew’s record of 23 international goals in 82 caps, Moa was favoured by many fans after his beautiful winning goal in Reykjavik. The landslag was also missing star defender John Arne Riise, after a freak collision in training left the player hospitalized with a serious concussion.
Portugal, meanwhile, travelled to Oslo after a humiliating 4-4 draw at home with footballing minnows Cyprus. A team seemingly in some turmoil following their underachieving World Cup 2010 campaign, the Portuguese were further rocked by the suspension of their highly regarded manager Carlos Queiroz after he allegedly interfered with a drug testing procedure. The visitors were also missing Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, thought of by many as the one of the best footballers in the world.
Norway began the first half better than Portugal, who defended unconvincingly throughout. Winger Morten Gamst Pedersen’s long throws and crosses caused chaos in the away team’s box, and Carew’s bustling forward play made the Portuguese constantly uncomfortable. Although he finished poorly when one-on-one with the goalkeeper in the early stages (in a chance that was soon after called offside by the referee), Carew was instrumental in Norway’s vital goal.
As the ball was played back to Portugal’s goalkeeper Eduardo, who seemingly had endless time to clear, Carew chased down what looked like a dead end until Eduardo hesitated; then, an incredible leaping tackle from Carew dispossessed Eduardo, and Huseklepp ran forward to kick the ball into an empty net. It was the easiest of goals, and a stark illustration of Portugal’s defensive nervousness – manifesting itself in a shockingly amateur goalkeeping mistake – combined with Carew’s determined performance. Sadly, Carew’s previous injury clearly persisted, and after struggling for several minutes he was replaced by Moa before half-time.
Portugal, meanwhile, gained and kept possession better than Norway, but the hosts’ organized defense gave little in the way of chances as the Portuguese showed only glimpses of their undoubted class.
Norway clinches victory – and celebrates
After half-time, Norway started brilliantly, as Huseklepp shot inches wide of the goal in the first minute, and Moa almost scored when one-on-one with the goalkeeper after 51 minutes. Still, Norway failed to build possession, choosing instead to hit hopeful balls forward to Moa, who lacked the height, strength and aerial ability of Carew that saw him cause so many problems for the Portuguese.
With Huseklepp also increasingly isolated, Portugal had a number of better chances leading to a disallowed goal on the hour mark. Fernandes had another testing long range effort, which Norwegian goalkeeper Jon Knudsen spilled to striker Hugo Almeida, who put the ball in the back of the net from close range. Replays suggested that Almeida was rightly called offside, but it was a let-off for the landslag.
Nevertheless, the commanding display from Brede Hangeland and Vadim Demidov at the heart of the Norwegian defence was resolute. Portugal had a number of further chances on goal, but always seemed to fail at the final hurdle. By the end of the game, despite threatening their hosts a few times, Portugal simply lacked the conviction and discipline to find a much-needed goal.
The scenes of jubilation from the Norwegian fans at full-time showed just how big a result this was for the country. Furthermore, the victory will have raised eyebrows across the continent, and many commentators will now watch Norway’s progress in the Euro 2012 qualifiers much more closely following such a terrific start.
For Norway, questions nevertheless remain about the use of their attacking options, and whether Moa is capable of playing effectively as a lone striker. Perhaps fans can hope to see Carew and Moa playing alongside one another, and complimenting each other’s different but deadly styles, when Norway continue on the road to Euro 2012 in their next qualifier against Cyprus on October 8th.