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Friday, 02 September 2011

Scandinavian spotlight: Can Norway see off their main rivals?


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While most eyes have been fixed firmly on the transfer comings and goings over the past few days as the window came to a close on Wednesday night it's back to international action over the coming days.

Here in Norway, land of the seemingly unending rain, football is gearing up for some international local derbies. First up on Friday is a match against Viking cousins the Icelanders while the Danes have the day off before welcoming Norway to the Parken Stadion in Copenhagen on Tuesday evening.

Friday's match against bottom of the group Iceland seems on paper like the easier task for Norway although the Icelanders haven't suffered any really heavy defeats in a group which also includes Portugal. They still have a smattering of stars from some of Europe's more well-known clubs including, of course, captain Hermann Hreidarsson, of Portsmouth, and Gudjohnsen, of AEK Athens, as well as others at clubs such as Hoffenheim, Ajax and AZ Alkmaar.

The real intrigue in this group isn't just the local rivalry but the fact that Norway, Denmark and Portugal are all locked on 10 points from five games and fighting for the two top spots. The Portuguese should have enough in the locker to see off Cyprus away while a win for Norway would seem to be crucial as their record in Denmark is poor. Both Scandinavian teams are pretty evenly matched and with neither scoring many goals in their qualification matches so far a low-scoring, tight game is what I would expect with a narrow Danish victory or draw the most likely outcomes. Norway's last game is at home to Cyprus, whom they have already beaten 2-1 away, while Denmark have to take on Portugal in Copenhagen. A draw for Norway would be a good result as long as they do the business on Friday.

The Danes, for their part, can still call on many talented players such as Thomas Sørensen, Daniel Agger, Nicklas Bendtner and Peter Løvenkrands so they can give anyone a game, although their last outing was a defeat at Hampden while Norway were beating Scotland's next opponents, the Czech Republic, 3-0.

Sweden have been cruising along nicely in Group E and are currently in second place with 15 points from six games behind new FIFA number one ranked team the Netherlands who have a 100% record which includes Sweden's only reverse - a 4-1 defeat in the Amsterdam Arena. On Friday they travel to the Ferenc Puskas Stadium in Budapest to play Hungary, who are in third spot three points behind with a game more played. A victory for the Swedes would all but eliminate Hungary from the equation leaving them six behind Sweden with only two games to play and a far inferior goal difference.

Hungary have done well so far and almost upset the Dutch back in March scoring three times in Amsterdam but running out 5-3 losers. As can be inferred from that scoreline the Magyars lose far too many goals (13 in seven games) while the Swedes have managed to rack up an impressive 20 goals in six matches although six of those were notched against the might of San Marino as well as five against next-door neighbours Finland. With that kind of goal scoring form and forwards like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Johan Elamander I would take Sweden to beat Hungary and then win easily on Tuesday away to San Marino and make sure of at least second place and a play-off spot before their final two games which are in Helsinki on October 7 and Stockholm on October 11 when thay play host to the Netherlands. Hopefully this will be an entertaining game with two high-scoring sides playing with the pressure off.

Tuesday's match-up in Copenhagen might not be a pretty sight as the stakes are so high for both countries. With the group as tight as it is one momentary lapse from any player could be all that separates two teams who played out a gritty, tense 1-1 draw back in March in Oslo's Ulevaal Stadion. It probably won't be a game for the faint hearted, or indeed for the purist, but barring a collapse by the Portuguese in Nicosia or at home to Iceland in their last game, three points could be absolutely vital.

Sticking my neck out I'll go for a 1-0 win for the Danes, but Portugal to keep things interesting by dropping two points to the Cypriots who came very close to an almighty upset by claiming a 4-4 draw in Guimaraes in the opening game. Sweden could be two goal winners over the Hungarians and could take six off San Marino again.

Article by Iain Macfadzean

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