Norway 1-0 Portugal: A crazy Eduardo mistake and a resilient Norwegian defensive display

September 9, 2010

The starting line-ups

Portugal continue their dreadful start to the qualification group – after two games they’re already five points behind table-toppers Norway.

The home side made two changes from their win in Iceland – left-back John Arne Riise was injured, so was replaced by Espen Ruud, a player more comfortable on the right. John Carew was fit to start, so replaced Mohammed Abdellaoue – but only lasted 38 minutes before getting injured, and Abdellaoue was back in.

Portugal’s left-back Fabio Coentrao was also out, and they too replaced him with someone out of position – Miguel Veloso. On the other side, Silvio was in for Miguel, and in midfield Danny was dropped in favour of Tiago.

The contrast in styles was clear from the start of the game – Portugal played short, neat passes that often didn’t go anywhere, whereas Norway were hitting direct balls to the forward three players, and relishing physical challenges. Morten Gamst Pedersen was used as a long throw specialist, firing balls in towards Carew and the centre-backs up from the back, whilst in open play the midfield was often bypassed, with long but accurate balls into wide zones.

Portugal get ball wide

Portugal’s general gameplan was to get the ball to their wide players to take on the full-backs, and get crosses in for Hugo Almeida. In theory this a decent tactic, but it was far from successful. The most immediate problem was that Brede Hangeland played very well against Almeida, dominating him in the air.

Norway’s full-backs were also doing a good job against Ricardo Quaresma and Nani – showing them inside into the congested centre of the pitch, always doubling up and making cutting in a difficult option. Portugal missed Fabio Coentrao’s darts forward from full-back – Veloso has deputised at left-back numerous times in his career, but has never looked particularly comfortable at getting himself forward down the line. Silvio is a more natural full-back, but his final ball was poor.

Nani has the ball on the left - two Norway defenders double up on him, and show him down the line

Usual problems in midfield

As was the case before World Cup (see the second picture here), Portugal’s main problem was in the central midfield zone, where they had three players – Manuel Fernandes, Tiago and Raul Mereiles – all contributing to a job that could be covered by two. Fernandes sat deep in front of the defence, Tiago looked to hit sideways balls towards the full-backs and wingers, whilst Mereiles played a box-to-box role.

Fair enough, they all had distinct jobs, but in a game where Portugal were always going to dominate possession, and in a game where they were without Cristiano Ronaldo, they wanted more creativity higher up the pitch, and the need for Danny further forward was evident within the opening twenty minutes. A combination of a sitting player, a box-to-box player and a pure creator would have been a better option – too often Portugal had the ball in promising positions, and two of their midfielders weren’t even hoping to become involved in attacking play.

Occasionally, they would find Tiago and Mereiles getting forward, but even then, with Norway’s three central midfielders sitting deep, they would find themselves with a 3 v 2 situation with Henning Hauger always on hand to clear up. Frequently, though, it was Mereiles on his own against three Norway midfielders, and Portugal would then knock it out wide, where they’d encounter the aforementioned problems.

An example of Portugal's lack of ambition in midfield - two centre-backs (purple) and two deep-lying midfielders (green) gathered around one Norway striker, with the ball ahead of them with Veloso (pink)

Norway go ahead

Norway had threatened when Carew found himself one-on-one with Eduardo, but elsewhere their main threat came from the right-winger, Erik Huseklepp. He took advantage of Veloso’s awkwardness at left-back, in particular from diagonal balls from Pedersen on the other flank. And it was Huseklepp who got the goal – not through a moment of genius, but after a terrible mistake from Eduardo. The new Genoa goalkeeper was the best goalkeeper of the World Cup, but has had an extremely bad two games, and can take the blame for both Cyprus’ equaliser, and Norway’s winner here.

After Huseklepp’s goal, Portugal’s problems going forward were amplified. Norway sat very deep, always with at least nine outfield players behind the ball – and Portugal simply couldn’t pass their way through. Often they only attacked with four players – Mereiles joining the front three – and none of them looked on form.

Quaresma, unbelievably good against Cyprus, was the most disappointing: constantly holding onto the ball for too long and delaying passes. Portugal’s attacks were slow, laboured and predictable, with no-one looking to raise the tempo.

This was a match that displayed the importance of scoring the first goal when both sides are looking to play on the counter-attack. After Norway went 1-0 up, they had the ability to sit back and invite pressure, before hitting quick balls forward. Their back four and two central midfielders always remained in place, and the defence sat deep, meaning Quaresma and Nani were unable to use their pace to good effect. Norway continued to show them both down the line, and the fact that neither look to naturally get into the box was very obvious.

Late changes

Stand-in manager Agostinho Oliveira frustratingly left it until the 72nd minute to introduce Danny (for Tiago) – and the Zenit man played high up the pitch, between the lines, and gave Norway a different problem. He produced the best pass of the match with a disguised through ball for Almeida, who was inches away from taking it in his path.

Manuel Fernandes (yellow) has possession, with all ten Norway players behind the ball

Almeida had a goal disallowed for offside, but Norway came close to extending their lead when Huseklepp flashed a shot wide from the right. Even with seven minutes to go, Oliveira wasn’t ready to take off a defensive player, bringing on Liedson for Quaresma. There were a couple of half-chances for Portugal, but ultimately they didn’t do enough to score. In fairness, neither did Norway – but the Eduardo mistake gifted them a goal.

Conclusion

Portugal simply can’t go on with the current situation regarding Carlos Queiroz. Tiago spoke for the team after the match, saying, “Is the situation with the coach affecting us? Without doubt. It’s a saga which has to be resolved as quickly as possible.”

If and when Portugal appoint a new coach, he must address the situation in the midfield. As frustrating as Danny was against Cyprus, it’s surely better to have someone in an advanced midfield role at least trying to make things happen, rather than play three midfielders who lack penetration and directness.

Norway’s clean sheet was achieved through excellent organisation and clever tactics. Hangeland dominating Almeida was key, meaning they were content to play narrow, and force Portugal wide. With their tactics and relative lack of firepower, getting the opening goal was crucial – Huseklepp got lucky, but was the game’s best attacking player.

Norway 1-0 Portugal: A crazy Eduardo mistake and a resilient Norwegian defensive display

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