When it comes to league football, we often say it’s the teams who, even when they don’t play well, still manage to win that are bound for titles. Playing well, blowing teams out of the water and racking up three points after three points is the ideal but it’s not always possible. Sometimes you have off-days and need the rub of the green – a missed call or deflected goal.
The Football Girls
So far, four matches into the World Cup, Norway haven’t blown teams out of the water and arguably had two generally sub-par group games, but somehow the team is coming out smelling of roses.
Against Nigeria, the Football Girls were under immense pressure and somehow pulled out the first goal of the match, then the second and third. The defence – inarguably, Norway’s Achilles heel – stood firm against Nigeria and kept the Super Falcons out. Against France, the defence stood strong once again and despite the match being Norway’s only loss to date, it was their best (or one of their best) performances in France so far. Even when luck went against them and they fell foul of VAR, it didn’t take the team off course.
Their match against South Korea was unquestionably their worst and despite all evidence on the pitch to suggest otherwise, Norway came out with the win that only helped to spur the team on. When their defence looked set for its toughest test yet, against Sam Kerr and her Australian teammates, it again, stood firm. Despite the late equaliser, the Football Girls seemed to only grow through the muggy extra time and into the shoot-out.
It’s true Australia were down to ten and have a less than glorious record when it comes to penalty shoot-outs. But Norway still had to do their job, and do they did with aplomb, not missing a single spot kick with Ingrid Hjelmseth even keeping Emily Gielnik’s spot kick out.
The most extraordinary thing about this team isn’t the results and performances they’re putting in but rather than no one would or could have expected it. Putting it nicely, the team has been a bit of a mess since before Martin Sjögren took charge at the start of 2017. The Euros were a clear low-point for the team but there was little in the build-up to suggest they’d have a stand-out tournament. When they got to the Netherlands, their okay form flew out of the window and they fell apart.
The past two years haven’t been a whirlwind of Norwegian dominance either but the team managed to navigate qualification, even seeing off the European champions on the last day of the group stage – a match that they shouldn’t have won on paper. The players in Sjögren’s favoured starting XI aren’t all coming into the tournament in good form, nor are all of them being used in their best positions (the less said about Kristine Minde the better). Yet, players like Isabell Herlovsen are excelling on the biggest stage in football.
It seems to matter not that both Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir missed the bulk of the 2018-19 season through injury (or that Mjelde is a midfielder), both have been playing out of their skin and look like they’ve travelled to France off of the back of a sublime season. Guro Reiten might not be in the best position to harness her strengths but the young attacker is still earning plaudits in France, so too Karina Sævik [when she plays]. Ingrid Syrstad Engen, Ingrid Moe Wold and Vilda Bøe Risa are completing their jobs with style (all three very much in form and in position) as Caroline Graham Hansen managed to avoid serious injury against South Korea to come out and continue to dazzle against Australia.
There are still improvements that can be made, from the logical to the in-game management and adaptability that Sjögren hasn’t always shown he’s capable of.
Once world champions, the Football Girls have fallen far, the days of Hege Riise and Linda Medalen charging around in attack, long gone. The game might have developed and evolved since FIFA’s first few Women’s World Cups – and thankfully matches now last 90 minutes etc – but there’s nothing to suggest this Norway team can’t emulate the one of 1995. The talent is there, the belief and so too the luck; if the question is Can Norway win the 2019 World Cup? The answer might not be “yes” yet but it’s certainly not, “no”.
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