Football coach Egil “Drillo” Olsen will be leading Norway’s national team into its crucial and much-anticipated European Championship qualifying match against Scandinavian rival Denmark on Saturday, without three first-choice players. The match, dubbed “The Battle of the North” by Nordic media, is also seen as one of the most important ever for Drillo himself.
The national team (landslaget) is currently at the top of their qualifying group after impressive wins over Portugal, Iceland and Cyprus, and will go into Saturday’s match against their Nordic cousins in Oslo carrying an enormous burden of expectation. Injuries to goalkeeper Jon Knudsen, defender Tom Høgli and striker John Carew will worry Norwegian fans anxious for the team’s form, which has reinvigorated the country’s interest in football, to continue. Similar injury problems in the Danish camp, though, will be a relief, as will the home-field advantage at Oslo’s Ullevaal Stadium.
Drillo’s greatest test?
Head coach Olsen has kept his cards characteristically close to his chest in anticipation of the match, allowing rumours to rage on who will start, particularly in the centre midfield positions. Olsen faces one of the biggest games of his long and successful career with the national side, as the result will prove crucial in the race to qualify for the European Championships in 2012 (jointly hosted by Poland and the Ukraine).
Without the height and physical presence of John Carew up front, Norway’s style of attacking play will be very different, with Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue the likely replacement. Moa has thrived since leaving Oslo-based Vålerenga for better competition in the German Bundesliga, although there have been question marks in the past over whether he is suited to the lone striker role favoured by Olsen.
While Moa is the obvious replacement for Carew, Rune Jarstein is tipped to step in for Jon Knudsen in goal and Espen Ruud will likely take over from Tom Høgli at right-back. There is wider debate over who will play in the Norwegian centre midfield, with three or four players fighting for the two positions available.
Another minor concern that may niggle at the back of many fans’ minds is Norway’s most recent form. While the team has dominated their qualifying group thus far, they have lost two of their last three matches, all of which were friendles, to Croatia and Poland. The game against Poland was particularly unimpressive, and Norwegians will hope landslaget is more fired up for this massive upcoming confrontation.
19-year old Danish threat
Norway’s opponents have also suffered injuries. In a training session this week, centre-back Simon Kjær and forward Niklas Bendtner both pulled up with injuries, with Kjær in particular videoed riving in pain. While the injury to the defender certainly looks more serious, the potential loss of Bendtner might be more telling for his country: Denmark is weak up front, and will look to the young striker, who plays for English club Arsenal, as a key player.
The Danes will not say whether Kjær or Bendtner will be ready for the match itself. Beyond injuries, much attention will be on 19-year old midfielder Christian Eriksen, who plays his club football in Holland for Ajax Amsterdam and was the Danes’ standout player in their previous match against England. The team’s form has been mixed of late – they lost 2-1 to England, despite a good display, and drew a preceding friendly 0-0 with the Czech Republic. They find themselves third in the European Championship qualifying group that they share with Norway, having lost once to Portugal, and beaten Iceland and Cyprus at home.
While historically Denmark has always been regarded as better than Norway, landslaget is currently ranked 11th in the world following a renaissance under Olsen, who was also head coach during the glory days experienced in the 1990s when Norway qualified for two World Cups and one European Championship. Norway is always strong when playing at home at the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo – where they haven’t lost a competitive match for two and a half years – but there are likely to be a number of tense moments during Saturday’s huge Scandinavian derby.
Police: ‘High risk’
Off the pitch, Oslo’s police force are prepared for potential trouble in the highly-charged atmosphere that will greet players and fans alike. Fears of Danish hooligans travelling to the game in order to fight their Norwegian equivalents are high, and extra measures will be put in place to avoid widespread unrest.
Tempers have certainly flared between the supporters, and also in the media, where the Norwegian press has cried foul at their Danish counterparts’ personal attacks on Olsen, as well as descriptions of Norwegians as “mountain apes.” A former Danish professional now working for Norwegian TV described the war of words between the two close nations as “bordering on racism.”
Meanwhile, landslaget was keen to show some perspective on events by deciding to donate NOK 200,000 (USD 36,000) from players, sponsors and supporters via the Norwegian football association to the Red Cross, with the money earmarked to earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Japan.