Norway’s national football team (landslaget) will be in Lisbon this weekend for a potentially decisive match on Saturday against Portugal in their campaign to qualify for the European Championships in 2012.
Landslaget is currently at the top of their qualifying group for the “Euro 2012” tournament, and famously shocked Portugal with a surprise 1-0 victory when the Portuguese squad visited Oslo last September. Now a revitalized Portugal, which boasts global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and some of the best football talents in the world, desperately need a victory in front of their own fans to boost their chances of qualifying for the European Cup.
Norway last qualified for a major tournament in 2000, and qualified for two World Cups in the 1990s during the first spell in which current manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen was in charge of the team. Olsen’s return as manager in 2009 has seen a renaissance in Norwegian football, as the side has risen to 11th in the FIFA World Rankings and beaten France, Portugal and other top teams. They are three points ahead of Portugal and Denmark at the top of their Euro 2012 qualifying group after four games in which they have gone unbeaten.
Many worried Norwegian fans and commentators nonetheless suggest Norway faces its toughest test in years at an inauspicious time. A number of the star players in the squad face uncertain futures at their current clubs. These include Morten Gamst Pedersen, who has featured less regularly since a new manager came to his English Premier League club Blackburn Rovers, and Erik Huseklepp, who scored the winning goal when Norway stunned Portugal in Oslo. Huseklepp, who moved in January from Norway to Italian Serie A side Bari, has had a tumultuous time in Italy, with incessant debate about his future after this season and even problems with payment of his wages. With key striker John Carew struggling with his fitness after missing recent games for English club Stoke City – as well as the fact that his contract has ended and he is effectively without a club at the moment – Olsen has a far less confident and match-practiced squad of players from which to pick.
Even sports psychologists are weighing in on the concerns. Geir Jordet, who has worked with a number of top Norwegian clubs, acknowledged in newspaper Aftenposten that players who “like predictability” could “suffer” from the uncertainty surrounding their club futures. At the same time, Jordet suggested that other players would “mobilize more” and use the game with Portugal as “a big shop window” to attract attention. “Some players have long experience, and have played so much with uncertain futures that it doesn’t necessarily mean as much,” he added, stressing that Olsen and the other coaching staff would have the situation under control.
Huseklepp himself told Aftensposten that he “doesn’t think it will affect us.” “We are secure in what we do and have fun together, and that’s what’s important in and before such a game,” he said. Olsen has also discussed the issue, telling newspaper VG that “there is no advantage in the fact that they have played so little, but there is little I can do about it” and emphasizing the importance of their training regime in the run-up to the match.
Key debates continue – on and off the pitch
Debate about Olsen’s direct playing style, often criticized for being ineffective and dull, has also continued as it has for much of his two spells in charge of the team. Many journalists have asked Olsen for his opinion of Spain’s European club champions Barcelona, who play with a far more indirect, short passing style that is increasingly favoured across the continent. While praising the European champions in his press conferences, Olsen also told VG that people should “be delighted that the newspapers don’t run Norwegian football.”
Landslaget has also been in turmoil off the pitch. Ståle Solbakken, a highly-regarded Norwegian manager who had signed an agreement to take over as coach after Olsen, decided to break his contract with the Norwegian football authorities in order to take up a position in charge of German club side FC Köln. This leaves Norway’s football association without a clear successor to Olsen. A string of other leading Norwegian managers have distanced themselves from taking the position, and the uncertainty cannot have helped the squad.
In terms of team news, most of Norway’s first choice players look fit and ready to travel to Lisbon. The only withdrawal from the squad thus far has been exciting midfielder Alexander Tettey, who plays for French side Rennes but has missed much of landslaget‘s previous games with recurrent injury issues. Debate once again surrounds who will play in goal and who will play up front. Two of the side’s three goalkeepers – Jon Knudsen and Espen Bugge Pettersen – have been struggling recently with injury, and either of them or Rune Almenning Jarstein could start. Jarstein is surely the favourite after remaining injury free and performing solidly in the previous 1-1 draw with Denmark. As in many previous matches, fans are debating whether experienced forward and Norway’s record international goal scorer John Carew should start as Olsen’s lone striker, or whether wonderboy Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue, who has often disappointed the national team, is ready for the challenge.
Cristiano Ronaldo awaits
Landslaget‘s opponents appear more confident than they did during their ill-fated trip to Oslo last year. Since then, the internal turmoil that plagued Portuguese football during the reign of former national team head coach Carlos Queiroz has lifted somewhat and the players are promising a better performance. New manager Paulo Bento has enjoyed four wins in the last six games, including a remarkable 4-0 thrashing of world champions Spain. Defender Bruno Alves told Aftenposten that the Portuguese players “are concentrating on playing as a team” as “the supporters demand this,” stressing that the players feel that are “in good form” despite the club season having ended in most European leagues.
Portugal’s key player, Cristiano Ronaldo, did not feature in the loss to Norway in September, but will be ready for Saturday’s game. Not only is Ronaldo the most expensive player of all time and the highest-paid footballer in the world, he has also managed 53 goals in 54 games for Real Madrid this season, and represents a serious threat to Norway. Olsen himself has praised Ronaldo and Portugal, telling VG that “it is difficult to see any team in the world that is better than them now.”
After Saturday’s game with Portugal, Norway will play a friendly international against Lithuania on Tuesday 7 June in Oslo.
NORWEGIAN SQUAD TO FACE PORTUGAL AND LITHUANIA
All club sides given in brackets are in Norway unless the country is stated.
Goalkeepers: Rune Almenning Jarstein (Viking), Espen Bugge Pettersen (Molde), Jon Knudsen (Stabæk).
Defenders: Vadim Demidov (Real Sociedad, Spain), Brede Hangeland (Fulham, England), Tom Høgli (Tromsø), Jonathan Parr (Aalesund), John Arne Riise (Roma, Italy), Espen Ruud (OB Odense, Denmark), Kjetil Wæhler (Aalborg BK, Denmark).
Midfielders: Daniel Braaten (Toulouse, France), Simon Brenne (Odd Grenland), Christian Grindheim (Heerenveen, Holland), Henning Hauger (Stabæk), Markus Henriksen (Rosenborg), Erik Huseklepp (Bari, Italy), Morten Gamst Pedersen (Blackburn Rovers, England), Ruben Y. Jenssen (Tromsø), Bjørn Helge Riise (Fulham, England).
Forwards: Mohammed Abdellaoue (Hannover 96, Germany), John Carew (free agent).
Håvard Nordtveit (Mönchengladbach, Germany) will also be available for the game against Lithuania.
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