National team football

England in Norway: Hodgson won’t want to see the hills of the north rejoice

England head for Oslo this weekend in their first warm-up match for Euro 2012 and all eyes will be on Roy Hodgson’s first selection. The game is all about performance over result, but a win will put England in good heart for the rest of their preparations.

Norway are not the force they were, but they only just missed out on qualifying for the finals, having been edged out by Portugal in a group that also included Nordic rivals Denmark. It will not be easy for Hodgson’s team of past-their-best stalwarts and prematurely-blooded youngsters. And it may provide some indication of the shortcomings of the current England squad and perhaps temper expectation in Eastern Europe this summer.

Trips to Oslo are a reminder of how England have tripped up in Norway in the past. More than 30 years ago, England lost a World Cup qualifier to a then lower-order Norwegian side. They were beaten 2-1, casting big doubts over their World Cup 1982 hopes. The legacy of the game is a memorable piece of match commentary from Norwegian TV.

A legend in the making…

“Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, vi har slått dem alle sammen, vi har slått dem alle sammen [we have beaten them all, we have beaten them all]. Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

Bjoerge Lillelien (pictured) was the man responsible for this tirade of jingoism. He died six years later, but his words live on.

It will be England’s first game against Norway since October 1995 when the two sides drew 0-0 in Oslo in a friendly. The portents are questionable. England have not beaten Norway since September 1980 when they won 4-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier. Since them they have lost twice and drawn once in the Ulleval Stadium while drawing twice at home. One notable past encounter was in June 1966 when Alf Ramsey’s team (he wasn’t Sir then) flexed its muscles on a pre-World Cup tour of the North. Jimmy Greaves netted four times in a 6-1 victory.

Since tumbling out of the European Championship, Norway have barely played. They were beaten 4-1 in Cardiff by Wales in November and this year have played twice: a 1-0 win in Bangkok against Thailand and a 3-0 success against Northern Ireland in Belfast. They are 24th in FIFA’s national team rankings – a far cry from the early 1990s when they ranked as highly as 4th.

So what can we expect? Hodgson has to field a capable side, if only to ensure the morale stakes are kept high. He won’t want to start with a defeat. Who will he play? Given Wayne Rooney will sit out the first two games at the Euros, he should try out what will be his first-choice striking options. That could mean a place for £ 30m misfit Andy Carroll, who ended the season in better shape than he started it. But he’s not an international-class frontman whichever way you dice it. It would also mean adopting a fairly “English” style to capitalise on Carroll’s aerial agility. In truth, Hodgson doesn’t have much in his armoury – Defoe and Welbeck, who sound like a firm of provincial solicitors, certainly won’t scare Norway, let alone France, Sweden or Ukraine.

As for Norway, there’s a sprinkling of Premier League talent in the form of Morten Gamst Pedersen, John Arne Riise and Brede Hangeland and a dangerous striker called Mohammed Abdellaoue who plies his trade in the Bundesliga with Hannover. They have the motivation of proving “we should be there too”, but in reality, the game doesn’t have much substance for Oslo society. But Hodgson knows that a setback for his new England will trigger the red-tops into action, lining him up for comparison with prize root vegetables from the Royal Horticultural Society. Not Swedes this time, though, chaps. It’s Norway.

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