A series of defensive errors cost the Norwegian national football team (landslaget) dearly in their friendly match against Greece on Wednesday night, as the so-called “Drillos” led by coach Egil “Drillo” Olsen fell to a 3-2 defeat in front of their home fans in Oslo.
The match was both teams’ final chance to warm up before the qualification groups for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil kick off this autumn. Norwegian fans are now more likely to look forward to the qualifying campaign with trepidation after the loss against Greece. Their usually consistent goalkeeper Rune Almenning Jarstein was guilty of gifting two goals to Norway’s opponents as part of an often embarrassing defensive performance by the hosts.
Drillo’s midfield dilemma
Greece, which shocked the footballing world when they won the European Championships in 2004, came into Wednesday’s match off the back of a surprisingly impressive performance at the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland this summer, where they were eventually well beaten in their quarter-final against Germany. That ironic parallel with Germany’s dominant position over the country in the Eurozone crisis was not lost on Norwegian anti-EU campaigners Nei til EU (No to the EU), who planned to hand out leaflets at the match in Oslo supporting ordinary Greeks in the face of “all too hard” pressure from Brussels.
Attention in Norway before the match centered on manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen’s choice of midfielders. His selection of midfield playmaker Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who had long waited for a new call-up after impressing at Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Norwegian champions Molde, gained significant coverage. Since Drillo had usually overlooked Eikrem, whom he described only as “above average” despite his high reputation among football pundits, the 22-year-old was keen to use his chance to impress at the international level and stake a place in the team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. “It’s up to me now,” Eikrem told newspaper Aftenposten, adding, “I have to work hard and develop what I’m good at and what I’m bad at, and then we’ll see how much playing time there is during the qualifiers.”
Another young midfielder, Håvard Nordtveit, had also staked a claim for a starting place in Drillo’s line-up following a fantastic season at the heart of top German club Borussia Mönchengladbach’s midfield, telling Aftenposten that he hoped to become a “core player” for landslaget on the road to Brazil. Drillo seemed to agree, describing Nordtveit as a “very important weapon” and the likely solution for Norway’s lack of a dependable defensive midfield option. Another weight off Drillo’s shoulders was that, in the days before the game with Greece, he finally received outstanding wages from the Iraqi football association for his brief stint as their national team manager between 2007 and 2008, the culmination of a long legal process.
2-1 down after 14 minutes
Despite the pre-match build-up, Drillo decided to leave Eikrem on the bench from the start, choosing Norwegian club Rosenborg’s youngsters Tarik Elyounoussi and Markus Henriksen in midfield alongside Nordtveit in addition to more established internationals like defenders Brede Hangeland John Arne Riise, the latter of whom equalled the national record for international appearances with his 104th cap. Nonetheless, it was these experienced heads that let Norway down with sloppy defending from the very start. Riise has often been criticized for his defensive inadequacies and the first goal had its origins in his key weaknesses, as Greek right-back Vassilis Torosidis easily turned the full-back inside out before crossing the ball at pace. The cross appeared to be going safely towards Jarstein in the Norwegian goal, but the goalkeeper had left too much room at his near post and failed to get back in time, bundling the ball clumsily across his own line. The Greeks may have been lucky but they had effectively been given the lead by their opponents after just seven minutes.
Four minutes later things looked even worse for Norway, as veteran defender Hangeland was caught half asleep from a free kick, lazily letting Greece’s centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos get away from him and plant a header beyond Jarstein from a few yards out. 2-0 down, it was a nightmare start for Norway – but this seemed to galvanize Riise and Hangeland, whose determination to make amends found its reward just three minutes later when, following the Greeks’ failure to clear their lines from a corner, the ball fell to Hangeland on the volley on the edge of the box, which he dispatched, via a deflection, into the back of the net. The clock had barely reached 14 minutes, but the score was already 2-1. The rest of the half was characterized by more shaky Norwegian defending but also promising attacking play, with star striker Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue going closest with a header that smashed into the Greek post.
Jarstein embarrassed again
After half-time, landslaget was again looking fragile at the back. When Greek substitute Kostantinos Mitroglou found himself through on goal, Jarstein looked to have avenged his earlier mistake by standing up well and preventing a third goal. But just minutes later, Jarstein let a hard but ultimately entirely saveable shot from Mitroglou fly through his fingers into the top of the net from a tight angle, again handing the Greeks the advantage on a silver platter. The calamity of errors seemed to be infectious, with Moa missing a golden opportunity from close range at the other end just minutes later. It would take veteran Riise, still smarting after his earlier defensive embarrassment, to bring Norway back into the game after 75 minutes, when he provided the perfect scissor-kick volleyed finish to a determined run and cross from Nordtveit. With the score standing at 3-2, the record-equalling legend seemed motivated to drive forward for an equaliser, but was inexplicably moved to centre-back by Drillo when the manager chose, for reasons undefined, to bring on full-back Espen Ruud for the final minutes of the game. This effectively diminished Riise’s ability to influence the game and thus Norway’s too, leading to a full-time result of a 3-2 defeat.
Norway begins its World Cup qualification campaign on Friday September 7 away against Iceland. Although landslaget has been drawn in a promisingly winnable group, their tragicomic display against Greece will have fans again wondering about Drillo’s tactics and philosophy, but also fundamentally questioning whether the team possesses the quality necessary to take them to Brazil in two years’ time.
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