The Norwegian national football team left it until the 82nd minute to ensure that they avoided defeat in the long-awaited ‘Battle of the North’ against Denmark in Oslo on Saturday, with the European Championship qualifying match ending 1-1 after Erik Huseklepp’s late equalizer.
The Danish visitors led the game for most of the match after taking the lead on 26 minutes through a fine volley by Dennis Rommedahl. The Norwegian national side (known as landslaget in Norwegian) never threatened to win the game, but the result means that they remain top of the European Championship qualifying group, three points clear of Portugal and Denmark.
Media frenzy over Drillo’s Danish son
In the run up to the game, the Nordic media circus whipped itself up into a frenzy over a bizarre twist in the tale – it was revealed by a Danish publication that Norway manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen has a Danish son (himself a footballer) from a relationship prior to his current marriage, something unknown to the Norwegian public. Drillo reacted angrily to the distraction, telling media at a press conference after the revelations came out that he would leave if they asked any questions that did not relate to the match. Police fears that had been raised before the fixture also intensified, as around 100 members of known Danish football hooligan ‘firms’ were reported to be on their way to Oslo in order to cause trouble during the match, prompting a further increase in security measures.
As for the teams, the Danes lost key central defender Simon Kjær to injury during training just a few days before the game, although they received good news about star striker Niklas Bendtner, who was declared fit to play after also picking up an injury. Norway went with Mohammed ‘Moa’ Abdellaoue as the lone striker and replacement for John Carew as predicted, with Rune Almenning Jarstein coming in for Jon Knudsen in goal and Christian Grindheim, Henning Hauger and Bjørn Helge Riise providing a strong, hard-working trio in the much-debated central midfield positions.
Norway’s indecision exposed
The beginning of the game was fairly open, but aspects of Norway’s play were immediately concerning, especially when a number of mistakes by replacement right-back Espen Ruud were only corrected by some lucky escapes. The home side’s inability to carve out clear chances was frustrating, and their sometimes indecisive defensive play would come back to haunt them for Denmark’s opening goal after 26 minutes. From a corner, Norway failed to clear their lines, and one attempted clearance set up Dennis Rommedahl perfectly just outside the box, where he had the time to hit a sweet, swerving volley past Jarstein and into the net. For the remainder of the half, Denmark again threatened far more than the hosts, and Norway’s annoying tendency of failing to craft good chances persisted, with Moa looking as uncomfortable and isolated in the lone striker position as he has in other recent internationals.
Huseklepp saves the day
After half-time, Norway seemed more intent on coming forward, while the visitors were content with sitting on their lead. The frustrations in landslaget‘s attacking play continued, with only the odd sniff of a chance being created. Denmark showed they had the quality to put the game beyond their hosts when Rommedahl was again given space to shoot from distance and hit the bar. The game desperately needed an injection of creativity and energy, which came when Drillo brought winger Daniel Braaten on for Rudd. Braaten was clearly instructed to play down the right with fellow winger Huseklepp, swapping and overlapping positions to confuse the Danes and create space. The strategy worked – in the 82nd minute, an exchange of passes and overlapping runs between the two put Huseklepp clear in the box, and his strength in holding off a tackle allowed him to shoot past Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen. After that, the fans became louder and louder, and Norway threatened to steal the game. Again, few concrete chances were created, and arguably any chance of a winning goal was lost when Huseklepp was replaced by the legendary but aging striker Steffen Iversen, who received a warm welcome from the fans for his 79th game for landslaget but looked to be a touch off the pace of the game.
The two moments of class in a game otherwise lacking quality produced the two goals that meant the ‘Battle of the North’ ended in a 1-1 draw. Drillo told TV2 after the match that he was “a little disappointed with the performance, but happy with the point,” which he said could be “crucial” in qualifying for the European Championships. But that does not mean that there are not issues for Norway to address, especially the inability of Moa to play in Drillo’s system, or perhaps the unwillingness of Drillo to change his style of play.
Landslaget fans will hope these will be addressed before the next European Championship qualifying game – a crucial match away to Portugal on June 4.