World Cup: Olsen sticks to systematic approach

Andrew Warshaw says Norway's inability to vary tactics could play into Scots hands
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The Independent Online
THREE months to the day before the start of France 98, Egil Olsen sat in a taxi on the way to the airport after a World Cup managers' meeting in Paris and made a frank and revealing confession. "The way we play isn't pretty but it works," the Norwegian coach said. "The problems will arise when someone learns how to cope with our style."

As his team prepare, 12 weeks on, for the game which could determine the World Cup fate of either themselves or Scotland, the man they call "the professor" suddenly has a job on his hands keeping his loyal pupils one tactical step ahead of their rivals. The thrilling spectacle against Morocco in Montpellier, a marvellous advert- isement for the tournament after so many sterile starts to previous World Cups, nevertheless underlined the concerns of those who have followed the fortunes of Norwegian football under the studious Olsen.

Just as a robot spirals out of control when its complex micro- chips go haywire, so Norway's scientific approach to football - powerful, dangerous and incisive when functioning - has nowhere to go when its own chips are down.

"Olsen has been saying for years that no one could play like us but Morocco did and we couldn't adjust," said Morten Pedersen, football correspondent for Dagbladet, Norway's second largest paper. "They knew how to create problems for us. They normally play possession football; this time they tricked us."

Indeed they did. The canny Henri Michel, Morocco's French coach, got his tactics just right. Both Morocco's goals, a fierce right-foot strike from the man-of-the-match Moustafa Hadji and a second-half effort from Abdeljilil Hadda, were the result of Norwegian-style long balls. Hadji's goal followed a gorgeous 60-yard pass from defence to left wing, while Hadda took advantage of a sublime lob over an unusually pedestrian central defence. Only two goalkeeping howlers at the other end prevented the first big upset.

Olsen and his players must have been relieved. After all, they had gone into the World Cup on the back of an unbeaten qualifying campaign and 18 goals in five warm-up matches. Norway's fans, with their Viking helmets, celebrated in the streets of Montpellier. But their mood was down more to the general ambience of a balmy evening rather than their team's performance. Privately, many expressed concern about the forthcoming encounters against Scotland and Brazil.

Olsen was, as usual, resolute as ever in defence of his tactics. But you sensed he was anxious. "I'd seen Morocco a lot and they never played like that," he confessed. "We couldn't prevent them making chances."

Remarkably, only twice in 84 internationals has a teamsheet under Olsen looked the same. While his team plays to a set pattern, its make-up is always unpredictable. That is what makes Olsen such a luscious paradox. Which 11 players he will select against Scotland on Tuesday is anyone's guess. The most intriguing factor is whether familiarity with so many Premiership players in Craig Brown's team will be to the advantage or disadvantage of Norway. In all probability, it will make no difference. The points are all that matter: at USA 94, Norway picked up four yet were still eliminated.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who will be fit for Bordeaux despite playing only 45 minutes on Wednesday because of an ankle injury, summed up the importance of the game. "We cannot lose and neither can they which makes it so fascinating."

Solskjaer says Norway will have to be more unpredictable against the Scots who are likely to be less generous at set-pieces. "We didn't vary the play enough," he said.

But are they able to? Solskjaer shook his head in frustration. "Listen, if you saw our last three or four friendly games, you wouldn't even ask that," he said. "We know all about Scotland and we don't think they have the same movement as Morocco. But they do have fantastic spirit."