The Norwegian national football team (landslaget) battled bravely and can hold their heads high after coming away from Lisbon with a much-anticipated and ultimately fair 1-0 loss to Portugal in their European Championship 2012 qualifying match.
Coming into Saturday night’s game, Norway led their Euro 2012 qualifying group after a four match unbeaten run, having beaten the Portuguese 1-0 during September 2010 in Oslo. Since then, a rejuvenated Portugal, with new manager Paulo Bento at the helm, had strung together a number of impressive wins that justified their world ranking of eighth, including a 4-0 thrashing of world champions Spain.
Much of the talk before the game surrounded one man – Cristiano Ronaldo – the Portuguese talisman who was absent in their shock defeat in Oslo. The Norwegian media’s focus on their own team expressed concerns about the match fitness of a number of key players who had fallen out of favour with their respective clubs, and wondered if a repeat of the magical night in September was even remotely possible. Norway’s flamboyant manager, Egil “Drillo” Olsen, went as far as to say that “it is difficult to see any team in the world that is better than Portugal now,” and the signs were generally ominous for landslaget.
A strong start
Nonetheless, Norway began the match brightly, surprising their hosts with a number of good chances in the opening minutes. Chief among them was a Morten Gamst Pedersen free kick that whistled just wide after no one had managed to connect with it. After this initial spell of Norwegian pressure, the story of the first half was largely one of Portuguese possessive dominance matched by a solid and well-organized defensive display from landslaget. Olsen’s tactic was clearly to frustrate the talented and creative Portuguese by getting as many men behind the ball as possible when they were in possession, and to get physical with the smaller Portuguese forwards. The strategy worked and seemed to be frustrating the home side, who were mostly restricted to speculative long shots and only carved out a few meaningful chances. Cristiano Ronaldo played much of the half out on the left while his teammates focused attacks down the right, and saw very little of the ball; when he did, Norway quickly mobilized to contain his threat. He was still responsible for arguably Portugal’s best chance of the half when he managed to get between Norway’s central defenders Brede Hangeland and Vadim Demidov – who were otherwise imperious in the air throughout the game – but Ronaldo’s header was easily dealt with by Norwegian goalkeeper Rune Almenning Jarstein, who produced a number of fine saves to deny the Portuguese.
Norway themselves were able to muster a number of decent chances by hitting their hosts on the break, and had possibly the two best opportunities of the half. Firstly, Erik Huseklepp forced a good save from Riccardo when clean through on goal, before Gamst Pedersen found himself with the goal at his mercy after Portugal failed to clear; sadly, the winger somehow conspired to miss the target with an awful shot that went high and wide of goal. That said, Norway had combined a great degree of defensive solidity with a small degree of the luck to keep the score 0-0 at half time.
‘A second’s hesitation’
The second half began in a similar fashion, with Norway continuing to rebuke Portugal’s attempts to challenge them in the air and carve out clear chances. In the 53rd minute, however, Portugal finally managed a good delivery into the box on the floor, where striker Helda Postiga squeezed in front of Demidov and, with a neat finish from close range, gave Portugal a 1-0 lead that clearly stunned the Norwegians. There was certainly nothing goalkeeper Jarstein could do about the goal and although there will be question marks over whether Demidov, who had been close to unassailable in the air, could have done more to prevent the goal, it was a brief glimpse of Portugal’s superior quality and would prove decisive. Demidov admitted that he “could have taken care of it” after the match when speaking to newspaper Aftenposten, who themselves described the goal as “a second’s hesitation” that cost landslaget the match. Winger Gamst Pedersen and left-back John Arne Riise also accepted responsibility for not closing the Portuguese down to prevent winger Nani from getting the ball into the box in the first place.
1-0 up, the home side seemed content to play out the rest of the match and was in no hurry to find further goals. They still remained the most likely to score as Norway struggled to find a way back into the match. The introduction of talented young striker Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue on the hour mark promised a different approach, but Moa was largely anonymous as the service to him continued to come largely in the air, and he once again looked isolated as a lone striker. Moa did have shouts for a penalty turned down when he was muscled to the ground in the box when nearly through on goal, but it would certainly have been a controversial decision if it had been given. In the end, Norway simply lacked the quality to come back into the game, and the match ebbed away to a 1-0 loss for landslaget.
Ronaldo was kept quiet throughout the match and cut a frustrated figure by its conclusion, having come up against a very impressive display by Norwegian right-back Tom Høgli. Ronaldo revealed his frustration when speaking to a post-match press conference (as reported by Aftenposten), stating that “Norway had no intention of scoring goals” and had “come here just to defend to secure a 0-0 result.” He admitted that his team “knew it would be difficult to score” and added that “1-0 is a good result for us.” Meanwhile, Høgli received high praise from his teammates and from Olsen. Olsen went as far as telling Aftenposten that he believes that Høgli, who currently plays for Norwegian Premier League leaders Tromsø, is now good enough to find a bigger club on the continent.
Still a chance to qualify
Ultimately, there are few footballing nations in the world that would come away from Portugal feeling ashamed of a 1-0 loss. The fact that Norway only lost by a single goal, and kept the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo at bay for the full 90 minutes, shows how much progress the team has made, and suggests that they are still well positioned to qualify for Euro 2012.
However, there is no doubt that their chances of qualification have taken a blow. Indeed, they took a double blow when Denmark beat Iceland 2-0 on the same day to come level on points with Norway and Portugal at the top of the group, with Norway dropping to third on goal difference (see the group table below). The group is now a three-way battle between a trio of top international sides, and Norway must get a good result when they face a tough trip to Denmark in September if they are to stand any chance of topping the group or coming second, which would see them enter a play-off round in order to qualify.
Norway’s next international will be a friendly match against Lithuania in Oslo on Tuesday.
EURO 2012 QUALIFYING GROUP H
(KEY: GP=Games played, W=Wins, D=Draws, L=Losses, GF=Goals for, GA=Goals against, GD=Goal difference, P=Points)
Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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