Riise silences critics in late, late show

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Wild celebrations erupted at Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo on Tuesday night as record-breaking John Arne Riise, the subject of a media storm in the days preceding the match, scored the winning goal from the penalty spot with virtually the last kick of the game as the Norwegian national football team (landslaget) narrowly overcame Slovenia 2-1.

John Arne Riise, making his 106th appearance for his country, put his Twitter-related problems behind him by scoring a crucial goal for Norway that keeps their hopes of reaching the World Cup alive - just. PHOTO: Jarle Vines (Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 3.0)

In a qualifying match for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 – dubbed a “must-win game” after Norway’s defeat against Iceland just four days previously – landslaget fought their way back from a 1-0 deficit but ultimately required a large slice of luck to beat a team few would have given a chance before the game. The win leaves the team, nicknamed the “Drillos” after manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen, still in with a chance of reaching the World Cup, although enormous question marks remain about their future prospects.

Drama on the pitch – and on Twitter
Even before the game, the enduringly popular “Drillo” faced the kind of pressure he has seldom experienced before during his two successful runs as manager of the national team. One former international, Tommy Svindal Larsen, insisted to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the experienced manager would have no choice but to resign if his team failed to overcome Slovenia, with many others pouring doubt on Norway’s chances of qualifying for Brazil. Making the World Cup had almost been taken for granted when the qualifying groups were announced during the optimistic days of landslaget‘s recent European Championship qualification campaign – but since the European dream ended in disappointment, the pessimism over the “Drillos,” particularly the new generation being brought into the squad, has only grown. “Drillo” himself recognized the significance of the visit of Slovenia, admitting to NRK that the new, young faces in his squad would need “a couple of years” to reach their potential. The leader of the Norwegian Football Associaton, Nils Johan Semb, was nonetheless far more optimistic, pointing out that Norway had lost their opening European Championship qualifier two years ago only to then go on to win eight of their next nine games.

Still, the negative atmosphere hanging over landslaget did not just concern their nightmare performance in Reykjavik. Riise, who broke the Norwegian record for international appearances against Iceland with his 105th cap, had been drawn into a media furore over his use of social network Twitter before the loss to the Icelanders, and it continued after the match, dominating press coverage before the meeting with Slovenia. Riise left Twitter in a huff on Saturday, only to be on the receiving end of what he claimed was a “character assassination” by the country’s most-read newspaper, VG, the day after, with the paper taking him to task for his perceived arrogance and labelling him a “conceited jerk.” Riise had previously accused another newspaper, Dagbladet, of making stories out of nothing when it covered  tweets in which the Fulham player was critical of his hometown Aalesund for not doing enough to recognize his achievements, including refusing to name a statue in his honour after he’d been its model. NRK pointed out that the media storm might not be a bad thing, as Riise had tended to play brilliantly after previous scandals during his career, such as a man of the match performance against Portugal in 2003 after he had spat at and fought with teammate John Carew.

Another nightmare start
“Drillo” made changes to the starting eleven that performed so poorly in Reyjavik – including bringing back previously much-maligned goalkeeper Rune Almenning Jarstein – but his team’s recent tendency to make simple errors quickly emerged against Slovenia, who travelled to Oslo smarting from a 2-0 home defeat by Switzerland on Friday night. After 16 minutes, Kjetil Wæhler gave away a cheap free-kick after an error from Håvard Nordtveit had originally gifted Slovenia possession – and from the resulting free-kick, keeper Jarstein made yet another mistake, palming the ball into the path of Marko Suler. The Slovenia put the ball past Jarstein and Wæhler failed to clear it on the line, putting Norway 1-0 down and raising fears of another embarrassment. But landslaget responded well, creating a string of chances that culminated in an equalizer when the ball fell to Tarik Elyounoussi on the edge of the box. His rasping shot rattled the crossbar, bouncing off the line and back out for the grateful Markus Henriksen, who had not started in the disaster in Iceland, to header easily into the net.

… with a fairytale finish
1-1 it stayed until half-time, after which Slovenia offered little in attacking threat as Norway themselves struggled to create clear cut opportunities to score. Again, “Drillo” felt it necessary to swap Norway’s established striker Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue with the up-and-coming Manchester United forward Joshua King – and once again King provided a kick for the team, looking dangerous and often fighting his way single-handedly to chances. Nonetheless, landslaget were still lacking a cutting edge and the game appeared to be heading to a draw that would do neither of the teams any favours. That was until deep into injury time, when Norway’s pressure finally seemed to be building up to something. With seconds remaining, substitute Alexander Søderlund went down under a challenge in the box and was, somewhat fortuitously, awarded a penalty. In the face of desperate Slovenian protestations, it fell to Riise to put the negative PR behind him and become the hero – and he did just that, smashing the penalty under the Slovenian goalkeeper and sparking feverish celebrations among players and fans alike who had almost given up believing that they could win.

It was a fittingly dramatic end to a dramatic few days for the “Drillos,” who must now improve massively if they are to put their dreams of reaching Brazil back on track. Their next match will be a testing trip to Switzerland – now favourites to win the qualifying group – on Friday 12 October.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher

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