Iceland nightmare dents Brazil dream

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Iceland recorded their first win over the Norwegian national football team (landslaget) in 25 years with a 2-0 home victory on Friday, giving Norway a nightmare start to their own qualifying campaign for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

Joshua King, pictured here in his time on-loan at German side Borussia Mönchengladbach, thought he had scored on his landslaget debut, only to see the goal ruled out for offside. He was the one highlight for Norway in an otherwise disappointing night in Reykjavik. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Goals from Kari Arnason and Alfred Finnbogason gave the Icelanders their first victory against Norway – nicknamed the “Drillos” after manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen’s own nickname – since 1987.  Having hoped that their World Cup qualifying group was among the easiest they had competed in recently, landslaget were left to rue the worst possible opening to the qualifiers for the tournament in Brazil in two years time.

New generations
The Drillos cannot claim that they were not warned. The Icelandic team has massively improved in the past two years, when Norway beat them twice in the European Championship qualifiers. Even on their last visit to Reykjavik two years ago, Norwegian captain Brede Hangeland was forced to give a rousing half-time speech in order to inspire his fellow players to come back from a 1-0 deficit – but Iceland now posed an even greater threat. Commentators have been talking up the potential of the young team under experienced new Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck, with forward Gylfi Sigurdson the foremost representative of their exciting new generation. Sigurdsson impressed on-loan at English Premier League club Swansea City last season and was one of the hottest properties in the summer transfer market, eventually earning himself a move to Tottenham Hotspur for around NOK 80 million Norwegian (nearly USD 14 million).

The Norwegian team is also in the midst of a generation shift, but the uncertainty around this change stands in stark contrast to the optimism around Iceland. “Drillo” brought a number of promising but untested youngsters with him to Reykjavik, including Manchester United’s Joshua King – a powerful striker who has drawn comparisons with Norwegian legend John Carew but has made only a handful of appearances for his club’s senior side. At the same time, the familiar faces of Blackburn’s Morten Gamst Pedersen and Brann Bergen’s Erik Huseklepp, who have 104 international caps between them, were surprise exclusions from the squad, dropped for their poor recent form for landslaget. Confusion reigned before the game over who “Drillo” would pick in a starting line-up many felt was his most difficult and important in years. In the end, he decided to drop goalkeeper Rune Almenning Jarstein, criticized for a string of errors in a recent loss against Greece, in favour of Espen Bugge Pettersen, with Bjørn Helge Riise making a return in midfield. Riise’s somewhat higher profile brother, left-back John Arne Riise, would break the Norwegian record for international appearances with his 105th cap.

Believe the hype
Norway looked like they had been paying attention to the hype around Iceland, starting the game at a high tempo and creating the opening chances. They restricted Iceland to a few long throws by Aron Gunnarsson that failed to carve out any real goal-scoring opportunities until the 21st minute. However, this first chance produced the game’s first goal, with Norwegian goalkeeper Bugge Pettersen failing to judge the bounce of the ball and gifting Kari Arnason a simple opportunity to give his team the lead. Iceland took over the game after going ahead with the sting taken out of landslaget‘s attacking, although the “Drillos” were able to keep their defensive concentration and hold back the Icelanders until half-time.

The second half saw the Norwegians up the tempo again in search of an equalizer. Nonetheless, meaningful chances were hard to come by and “Drillo” was compelled to throw on King and fellow striker Alexander Søderlund with 25 minutes remaining. That roll of the dice inspired Norway to play with real intent again, and appeared to have paid off when the ball fell to King in the box after Iceland had failed to clear from a set piece. King duly dispatched the ball into the back of the net and began celebrating what he thought was a priceless and memorable goal on his debut – only to see the linesman’s flag raised for offside against a Norwegian player standing in front of the Icelandic goalkeeper. As if that disappointment was not enough, just minutes later, as Norway continued to commit men forward in search of a goal, they were caught out at the back and punished by Icelandic substitute Alfred Finnbogason, who was put through one-on-one with the goalkeeper by Sigurdsson and kept his cool to put his country 2-0 ahead.

Recriminations
There was no way back for Norway, even though the ever-energetic King hit the crossbar with a late chance in injury time. Following the defeat, Drillo admitted to newspaper Aftenposten that he was “so annoyed and sad” that he was hoping to “do a runner.” Indeed, recriminations have already begun in the fall-out of the loss, with defender Kjetil Wæhler publicly blaming goalkeeper Bugge Pettersen for the goal – ironic given the public criticism Bugge Pettersen had himself come out with against the man he replaced, Rune Almenning Jarstein, after the goalkeeper’s mistakes against Greece.

It further emerged after the match, as reported by newspaper Dagbladet, that John Arne Riise had to be told off hours before the match for breaking landslaget‘s social media rules for use of Twitter before a match. This followed criticism from Riise against his hometown football club Aalesund and journalists. With many commentators pouring scorn on the performance and Drillo’s tactical choices, players themselves joined in, with young midfielder Markus Henriksen telling Aftenposten that he had not been told why he had been dropped after some good recent performances for the national side.

As news came in that star striker Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue has picked up an injury, the bad atmosphere around the Drillos could not be worse before Tuesday’s crucial game against Slovenia in Oslo. As Captain Hangeland put it to Aftenposten, it is a “must-win game.”

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher

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