Another poor match ended in a tie

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A largely toothless performance by the Norwegian national football team (landslaget) saw them draw 1-1 against an under-strength Croatian squad playing well below their best in Oslo on Saturday. Norwegian coaches claimed on Sunday, however, that the match gave some of their young players valuable experience in the run-up to World Championship qualifiers that will begin this fall.

Having had the majority of possession but lacking the quality to overcome 1-0 winners England in an earlier friendly last week, the Norwegians were hoping for a better performance against yet another team warming up for the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine . The Norwegians themselves didn’t manage to qualify for Euro 2012, which begins next week.

Reports throughout the week suggested that Ullevaal Stadium would struggle to be half full for Croatia, after having been packed for the visit by the English. The fans who did make the effort to attend on Saturday saw another disappointing match against top-class opposition.

No Modric, no ‘Moa’
Croatia’s previous outing was a comfortable 3-1 home win against Estonia last Friday. The Croatians can boast a string of top international players, not least Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Luka Modric, hailed by Norwegian captain Brede Hangeland as “one of the absolute best players in the English Premier League” when speaking to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Rumours before the match suggesting that Modric would be rested because of illness were confirmed shortly before kick-off, leaving the side without their star player. Still, Hangeland suggested this would not make landslaget‘s task any easier, as he considers Croatia to be “one, maybe two, notches better than Norway,” with many suggesting that they would be an even tougher test than England. Beyond Modric, Norway would need to be wary for their opponents’ cultured and versatile attacking options like Everton’s Nikica Jelavic, Ivica Olic of Bayern Munich and Eduardo, who plays in Ukraine for Shakhtar Donetsk.

For Norway, key right-back Tom Høgli promised to return to action immediately following a dangerous-looking ankle injury inflicted by England captain Steven Gerrard a week earlier. He ended up starting on the bench, however, replaced by Espen Ruud. World-class striker Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue also had to sit out the game with a calf injury. Toulouse-based winger Daniel Braaten, who started against England, was being tried in training as the lone striker in Manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen’s classic 4-5-1 formation and would start up front, with Erik Huseklepp, who has had an unsettled season in England, coming in to take his place out wide. Braaten had been quoted by NRK that he was “tired” of the media’s depiction of footballers as “idiots with expensive cars.” He was speaking as he and the squad visited the Norwegian Home Front Museum as part of a project, known as “I play for Norway,” designed to give the national team’s players a better reputation.

Other than Huseklepp’s inclusion, midfielders Morten Gamst Pedersen and Christian Grindheim, who underperformed agaisnt England, were also dropped, with Ruben Yttergård Jenssen coming in.

Same old story
The Norwegians were well on top in the first half, with Croatia clearly playing within themselves and hoping to avoid injuries before Euro 2012. While the visitors failed to create a single chance of note, Norway should have scored at least once from the opportunities they produced. The first came after a fine passing move down the right ended up falling to Braathen in the box – but the pass from Markus Henriksen was just behind the forward, who took too long to turn and shoot, seeing his effort blocked. Not long after, a similarly flowing passing display, this time down the left, led to Henriksen having the ball served to him on a plate just a few yards in front of the Croatian goal. Somehow, the much-fancied 19-year-old midfielder failed to put the ball past goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, who produced a remarkable reflex save to deny the youngster his first goal for his country.

Drillo made a number of changes at the start of the first half, and Norway therefore took longer to settle after the break. Defender Kim Andre Madsen came in and gifted Croatia a good chance almost immediately, with substitute goalkeeper Espen Bugge Pettersen forced to make a diving save. The Croatians were much better in the second-half but still chose not to switch into a higher gear; indeed, they would themselves present their opponents with a gilt-edged opportunity when Danijel Pranjic’s back pass was intercepted by Huseklepp, who should have scored but somehow contrived to waste the chance one-on-one with Pletikosa. Just as against England, Norway’s landslag lacked a clear and reliable attacking threat, and once again ended up conceding to players of a higher class through a single moment of quality. Dario Srna’s surging run and cross was met by a stooping header from Eduardo that Bugge Pettersen had no chance against.

The game gradually wound down until, at the last minute, Tarik Elyounoussi scored a slightly fortuitous equalizer for Norway from a corner. Still, it was more like a consolation for Norway after another underwhelming performance – the same old story for a Norwegian team that lacks attacking options and the cutting edge they will surely require if they are to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. Drillo told NRK after the match, however, that many of his players “learned a lot” in the match and gained experience before the World Cup preliminaries begin.

After the summer break, landslaget‘s next match will be away against Greece in August.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher

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