An excellent performance away from home earned the Norwegian national football team (landslaget) a precious point for their World Cup 2014 qualifying hopes, with a 1-1 draw against Switzerland on Friday. Coach Egil “Drillo” Olsen seemed pleased.
In a display that typified the football philosophy of Drillo at its best, Norway dominated for long periods of the match, giving their opponents little time on the ball and posing a deadly threat from set pieces. The result gives the team continued reason to believe in their chances of reaching the World Cup in Brazil, and may silence the many doubters and detractors who have raised their concerns in light of recent poor performances.
Panned and pickpocketed
The team had been universally panned for their two opening World Cup qualifying matches in September, when they were beaten 2-0 by Iceland in Reykjavik, and then needed to come back from 1-0 down to defeat footballing minnows Slovenia in a dramatic late finish in Oslo. Questions were asked not just of the team’s chances in what had been seen as a relatively easy qualifying group, but also the very future of Drillo as head coach. Others suggested the legendary coach simply lacked the kind of quality that took Norway to the World Cup in 1998, with experienced coach and commentator Lars Tjærnås turning to Twitter to label the team that beat Switzerland back in 1996 as a “gourmet restaurant” compared to today’s “McDonalds-quality” squad. The most widely discussed criticism of all came from arguably the country’s most high profile footballer of all time, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who bemoaned the way players’ conduct had hurt the reputation of landslaget during their most recent outings, when John Arne Riise was heavily criticized for his behaviour on Twitter and under-fire goalkeeper Rune Almenning Jarstein threatened a photographer. Solskjær effectively implied there was a bad culture in the national camp, something Drillo strenuously denied.
Even outside of football, things were far from easy for Drillo during the run-up to Friday’s match: He was pickpocketed at the metro station near the Norwegian Parliament, Stortinget, in downtown Oslo, with his wallet and bank cards stolen. Looking to rob Norway of points on the pitch, meanwhile, was the young Swiss national team. It’s been raising eyebrows in the football world because of its emerging talent along with convincing wins in opening qualifiers that put it at the top of Norway’s group. Among their foremost talents is Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri – a player considered such a threat that the most capped Norwegian player of all time, left-back John Arne Riise, promised newspaper Dagbladet that he would concentrate on putting the winger on the back foot in order to restrict his attacking forays and take advantage of his perceived defensive frailties.
With star striker Mohammed “Moa” Abdellaoue out with injury after struggling with a back problem, the door was once again open to young Manchester United reserve forward Joshua King, who impressed as a substitute in the first two qualifiers, and “super sub” Alexander Søderlund, who like King had performed well after coming off the bench against Slovenia and earning the penalty that secured Norway the win. Indeed, Søderlund was given a start in Drillo’s favoured lone striker system. His squad selection was once again a hot topic of debate, with experienced internationals Morten Gamst Pedersen and Erik Huseklepp, who were left out against Iceland and Slovenia, joined by other high-profile players in failing to make the squad, including Alexander Tettey. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Jarstein, who claimed before the game that he would start despite recent error-strewn performances, was picked ahead of Espen Bugge Pettersen.
From the kick-off, Norway looked nothing like a team under pressure playing away from home and soon made their confident opening tell with a string of good chances from set pieces. Starting with an inviting Riise free-kick that was quickly followed up by two corners, towering central defenders Brede Hangeland and Vegard Forren (twice) were only denied goals by superb Swiss goalkeeping from Diego Benaglio. It was a wake-up call for the Swiss and they soon replied when Tranquillo Barnetta’s bullet header struck the post. It was an enormous scare for landslaget and the single best chance of the half but, overall, Norway would go in at half-time with the upper-hand having produced a classic “Driilo”-style 45 minutes of dead-ball danger, high pressing and solid defending.
In the second-half, the game fell into a predictable pattern with both sides seemingly unwilling to risk going all out for victory. Still, such an even game required only a single moment to bring it alive, and no classic “Drillos” performance would be complete without some late drama. The Swiss were happy to oblige, with Mario Gavranovic all too easily evading his marker at a corner to put the hosts ahead with just 10 minutes remaining. With Norway staring down the barrel of a disastrous result, the Norwegians were put to the ultimate test, both tactically and emotionally.
It was a test they were determined to pass, and just two minutes later, the scores were level again – and again it was a set-piece, namely another Riise corner, that did the trick. Fittingly, captain Hangeland – born in Houston, Texas, and standing six feet, five inches tall – continued his aerial dominance by crushing all opponents to header in a crucial equalizer. Such was the speed at which landslaget had turned the game around, they had the momentum and looked likeliest to steal a winner, especially when Tarik Elyounoussi hit the post with a curling effort from outside the box. Drillo admitted to Dagbladet after the game that he had hoped to win after coming so close. It was not to be, but a draw and a point was a good result for both sides – and particularly for his team.
The team has no time to rest on its laurels – Drillo’s players face another tough away trip, this time to a match Tuesday on Cyprus, where a win and three points are effectively a must in their quest for a place in Brazil.
Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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