Egil Olsen: Wise old head plotting a fresh England defeat
He once made Norway a force in world football and now he is trying to repeat the trick, with some success. Glenn Moore assesses how his current team matches up to sides of old
Young Norwegian managers may be in vogue at present, with Wolves hiring Stale Solbakken and Aston Villa interviewing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but it is a veteran compatriot England will be facing tonight.
Egil Olsen, the man who oversaw Norwegian football's greatest period, and denied England a place at the 1994 World Cup, is back at the helm, reviving the fortunes of a national team he once took to second in the Fifa rankings. Olsen was 70 last month but does not look it and retirement seems a long way off.
Olsen is a legend in Norway. Prior to his first appointment, in October 1990, the country had only attended one major tournament, the 1938 World Cup. He took them to successive World Cups, beating Brazil in the 1998 finals, an astonishing achievement for a country of five million which is more interested in winter sports than football. Olsen moved on but the core of that team reached the 2000 European Championships before the Norwegian game slid back into the shadows.
It is always a risk for an acclaimed coach to go back, as Kenny Dalglish found, but Olsen answered the call in 2009 and immediately supervised an away victory against Germany, the first in more than 70 years. It was no one-off: in Euro 2012 qualifying Norway almost knocked Cristiano Ronaldo out of this summer's finals, being edged out of second place by Portugal on goal difference.
Bryan King, the former Millwall goalkeeper who emigrated to Norway years ago and scouts Scandinavia for Everton, said: "He had a great squad the first time around with players at clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham... he doesn't have players like that now but the players believe in him and his ideas and he generates a great team spirit."
Olsen's ideas are not in vogue. England are playing Norway because their style is similar to Euro 2012 opponents Sweden, but Norway do not have a Zlatan Ibrahimovic and are more direct. Olsen's first spell was marked by a long-ball game with the twist of having a tall forward on the wing, such as former Sheffield United striker Jostein Flo, who would be hit with long passes from the full-back, with midfield runners breaking on to his knock-downs.
"There's not so much of that now, but the basic principles are the same," said King. "He wants the ball forward early, they get the ball out wide and into the box. Man for man, England are better on paper, but that's been the case for decades yet they always give England a good game. Set-pieces are an area they could trouble England, and on the break – he plays a counter-attacking game."
This may soon be familiar. "Roy's philosophy is not very different from mine," Olsen said in an interview this week of England's new manager. Unlike Hodgson, however, his management philosophy does not travel well. A stint as coach of Iraq was brief and his other foreign posting, with Wimbledon in 1999, resulted in relegation.
In his first spell Olsen could call upon Solskjaer, Ronny Johnsen, Henning Berg, Stig Inge Bjornebye, Oyvind Leonhardsen, Erik Thorstvedt, Tore Andre Flo and Lars Bohinen. His current squad has captain Brede Hangeland and his Fulham team-mate John Arne Riise, and Blackburn's Morten Gamst Pedersen, but most play in moderate leagues, or irregularly. The exception is Hannover 96 striker Mohammed Abdellaoue. Oslo-born of Moroccan descent, he has scored double figures in the last two Bundesliga seasons. "He's a good finisher with both feet, not in the class of Solskjaer, but in a similar mould," said King. "He doesn't do a lot of work outside the box but he's quick enough to cause trouble if the defence is square."
The 26-year-old has only 19 caps but was made captain in February when Hangeland was unavailable for the friendly against Northern Ireland. That match was won 3-0, a marked improvement in form after a 4-1 defeat to Wales, and a King's Cup debacle in Thailand when Norway were held by a Danish league XI and lost 3-0 to South Korea's under-23s. That team was primarily made up of domestic players, but five of the starting XI are expected to feature against England.
"The goalkeeper will probably have a blinder, but he's poor," said King. "The defence is steady but they could have a problem in midfield." King picked out 19-year-old attacking midfielder Markus Henriksen, currently at Rosenborg, as a young player to watch. "There's a few clubs looking at him," said King. Aston Villa, Napoli and Werder Bremen are believed to be among those, while Henriksen himself rejected a €2m move to Bruges in January.
A one-time card-carrying Communist, "Drillo" Olsen was lampooned in England for wearing wellies to oversee training at Wimbledon but he is no mug. Norway were 59th in the Fifa rankings when he returned, an all-time low (since the ranking's 1993 introduction). They are now 24th but, crucially, had risen to the top 12 when the qualifying draw for World Cup 2014 was made last December, with the result that they were seeded and are as likely to be in Brazil in two years' time as anyone.
First, there is a 32-year unbeaten record against England to defend.
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