ALL eyes will be on the Socceroos at 4.00am AEDT Saturday morning (AEDT), as the Bert Van Marwijk era gets underway at the Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo.
Australia is preparing for it’s fourth consecutive World Cup finals appearance in Russia – but their opponents, Norway, have a longer-term goal in their sights.
WATCH THE SOCCEROOS v NORWAY LIVE ON FOX SPORTS 503 FROM 3.30AM AEDT ON SATURDAY
Simon Hill spoke to former Norway defender, Brede Hangeland, who played 91 times for his country, about what we can expect from the Norwegians…
SH: Norway had a fantastic team in the 1990’s, when the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Tore Andre Flo, Henning Berg, John Carew and Steffen Iversen all graced the jersey. Yet the country hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 2000. What has happened to Norwegian football?
BH: There has been a gradual decline. The highlight was being ranked second in the world behind Brazil! That is probably never going to happen again. In the 90s, we were innovators of world football – playing a style that was extremely effective. At the same time, we had a number of players in the top leagues, particularly the English Premier League.
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Since then, the big leagues have become multi-national, rather than just for western Europe – so it has become a more global playing field. We also have a long winter, and only 5 million people to choose from. The standard of football here now is probably more at its natural level (due to resources), but people certainly expect more than they have been getting in recent years. Our aim should be to get to a World Cup or a European Championship. That should be achievable.
SH: Coach Lars Lagerback had a lot of success with Sweden & Iceland – is he the right man for Norway?
BH: He was received really well for a couple of reasons. He is a Swede, therefore Scandinavian; he knows the culture, and has a similar philosophy to those in Norway. And he proved with Iceland that he could do magical things with a pretty basic team with limited talent. He is a coach who gets more out of a team than the talent of the individual players would suggest. That’s what we need, because we don’t really have any stars on the big stage.
SH: So far, he’s selected 43 players – capping 37 – in just 9 games. Is he close to finding the blend he wants?
BH: He is still experimenting – but he’s said this week he needs to find a core of 15 or 16, and work with them in the coming months to improve the team. My feeling is, he’s found a very big group of players who are all roughly at a similar level, and he is still searching for that core. But he knows now he has to make choices and go with some of them. Which he did successfully with Sweden and Iceland.
SH: What sort of a style will Norway play?
BH: He is very much a 4-4-2 coach in the same tradition as say, Roy Hodgson. You play narrow, you’re hard working, you’re tough to beat, and well organised. That is a good fit for us – in the 90s, our trademark was fitness, and teamwork.
There are a few players coming up with better technical skill than has been the case, but most people in Norway recognise it must still be a team effort, with those fitness, and organizational elements as the keys.
SH: Talking of those up and coming players – Martin Odegaard, who is currently on loan with Heerenveen from Real Madrid, has drawn some comparisons with Zinedine Zidane – is he that good?
BH: He is a fantastic talent, but I have to say that the level of attention he gets in Norway is probably a sign of what we’ve been lacking in recent years. A lot of debate around the team focuses on him. But he’s young, and there’s no reason for him to have to carry that all on his shoulders. There’s a big need to create more profiles in the team, and leave him to develop in peace, if that is possible. It’s a young team now – an average age of 25 – and we need more than just him to step up and create a name for themselves. He can’t do it on his own.
SH: The Celtic defender, Kristoffer Ajer, is another with big potential. He has been called up for the first time – will he get game time?
BH: I’d be surprised if he didn’t play – he’s done really well for Celtic. I’m probably not the right one to say this, but a lot of people in Norway believe we’ve lacked a commanding centre back since I finished. So the expectation is that once he starts playing, he’ll be there for ten years, and they can build a team around him. If we go into the details, one of the problems in Norway, is that we’ve tried to develop more technical players. We’ve ended up creating a lot of central midfielders – but the game is decided in the two penalty areas. You need good defenders and good strikers. He’s the one we’re hoping will dominate at the back.
SH: Let’s talk about the other end of the pitch then, because as you allude to, goals have been an issue. Excluding the win against minnows San Marino, Norway haven’t scored any from open play in their last five internationals. Is there an answer to that problem?
BH: There WAS an answer when Lagerback announced his squad! Finally we have two good strikers, both playing in the Premier League in Josh King (Bournemouth), and Alexander Sorloth (Crystal Palace), but unfortunately, both have pulled out. You can imagine that perhaps Eddie Howe and Roy Hodgson (and this is only my speculation) have said they don’t want their players to run the risk of playing in friendlies, because both are fighting for their Premier League status. But certainly the hope is that those two will form a strike partnership in the future.
SH: What about Bjorn Maars Johnsen – he is scoring a lot of goals in the Netherlands for ADO Den Haag?
BH: Johnsen is one of those who is not very well known – he doesn’t even speak Norwegian in TV interviews (Johnsen grew up in the United States with a Norwegian father and American mother). He’s done very well in Holland, and he says he is hoping to become the top scorer in the Eredivisie. He is very tall – so the challenge for him is to move quickly enough, and be technical enough at the highest level. The chances are he will play against Australia with King and Sorloth out. There’s a bit of John Carew about him – not as quick, but he’s big, and will be a real handful in the physical battle.
SH: Moving on to Australia, you played with Mark Schwarzer at Fulham, and then Mile Jedinak at Crystal Palace – do you stay in touch with either?
BH: I see Schwarzer quite a lot – I work on the English Premier League show in Norway, and Mark does something similar for Australia. I haven’t spoken to Mile in a while – but I was close to him at Palace. He’s a great player and an even greater man. Hopefully there’s a chance to see him on Friday.
SH: What do you know of the Australian team?
BH: We’re very much focused on English football here, so the guys playing there will be well known – the other ones less so. The general expectation in Norway is for Australia to be a very good opponent. We know it’s a massive game for the Aussies with the World Cup looming. The pitch looks fine so I think it will be ok, despite the chilly weather. It’ll be much colder than many of the Aussies will be used to though!
SH: You played for Norway against the Netherlands when Bert Van Marwijk was in charge – what sort of approach do you expect from him?
BH: I don’t know him that well, but I hear he’s more of a pragmatic coach. And when you only have a couple of months before a World Cup, then pragmatism is probably the only way. If I was in that position, I would try to maximise the chance of results really. He has limited time to set them up for Russia, so it’s a case of hitting the ground running, getting his principles across. I wouldn’t expect any kind of football revolution – he’ll go with something he knows.
SH: Finally, are you confident Norway will end their long wait for an appearance at a major tournament at the Euros in 2020?
BH: I wouldn’t say I’m confident because it’s been so long. But we’ve been close in my decade of playing – we were so unlucky at times. I’m not one for regrets, but it would have been nice to play in a major tournament. But I guess I’m to blame for that too, so it’s not something you can dwell on. With an even bigger Euros, Norway really should be there. It’s a question of whether these young players can develop under Lagerback’s guidance. It would be a major disappointment if we weren’t there.