Re: Internationals Saturday
Preview and interview
Saturday 12 November 2005, 19:30CET
Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo
Norway v Czech Republic
First leg of the European Zone play-off for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™
Whichever way you look at the Norway-Czech Republic play-off, there is no disputing that Karel Bruckner's Czech side start as clear favourites. Top scorers in the European qualifying campaign and ranked third in the world, the UEFA EURO 2004 semi-finalists are on paper the strongest of the six play-off contenders from the Old Continent.
They won nine of their 12 matches to finish second behind the Netherlands in Group 1, and their tally of 12 goals from six qualifiers on foreign soil is double the number that Norway managed in their five home games. And while they travel to Oslo for Saturday's first leg without their leading scorer, the injured Jan Koller, the return of midfielder Pavel Nedved from 16 months' self-imposed exile offers a significant boost to a squad looking to make amends for losing to Belgium at this stage four years ago.
"I have a good feeling about Pavel's return," said coach Karel Bruckner of Juventus star Nedved, whose last appearance came in the semi-final defeat by Greece at UEFA EURO 2004. Nedved himself has said his return is for "only two games" but it is inconceivable to think the 33-year-old would not remain on board if the Czechs secured their first FIFA World Cup™ finals place since independence from Slovakia in the early 90s.
Norway, meanwhile, who are seeking a third finals appearance, are happy in their role of underdogs according to coach Age Hareide. Speaking from the squad's training camp in Denmark at the start of the week, he told reporters: "We are underdogs and I think that suits us well. Because if Norway are under pressure, then you can be sure the pressure on the Czechs is even greater."
Hareide described the differing pressures as a potential "trump card" for his team, although that tag could also apply to his main striker and the newly crowned Norwegian Player of the Year, John Carew. While the Czechs are without both Koller and his fellow lofty forward, Vratislav Lokvenc, Norway can look to the towering Carew, available again after missing the October victories over Moldova and Belarus and a player who, in Hareide's words, "ties people up and can create dangerous situations".
History and background
The Czechs' status as favourites is supported by a glance at the past meetings between these sides. Norway played the former Czechoslovakia twice and lost on both occasions, suffering 3-2 defeats in Bratislava in 1988 and in Oslo three years later. They subsequently faced the Czech Republic in qualifying for the 1996 European Championship and again came off worse.
Norway entered that qualifying campaign on the back of their debut FIFA World Cup finals appearance at USA 94 but missed out on a place at EURO 96 after a 1-1 draw with the Czechs in Oslo in August 1995 and a 2-0 reverse in Prague a month later. The Czechs, of course, went on to reach the final of EURO 96 the following summer and now Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer, veterans of that side, would love to make their mark on next year's finals in Germany fully ten years on.
If the Czechs are seeking to banish memories of their 2001 play-off defeat by Belgium, Norway themselves have a ghost to exorcise as they look to reach their first major finals since EURO 2000. Two years ago, the Scandinavians were beaten by Spain in a two-legged tussle for a place at EURO 2004, going down 2-1 in Valencia before a heavy 3-0 loss in Oslo.
Their home performance proved their undoing then and much could depend on the way they start this tie at the 25,000-capacity Ullevaal Stadium on Saturday. Although they defeated Moldova 1-0 in their most recent match in Oslo, Norway's form on their own ground has been less than convincing: they recorded just two wins from five Group 5 qualifiers and, as mentioned earlier, scored only six times.
Given their shortage of goals at home, Norway can scarcely afford to concede one themselves and Hareide will duly look for a strong performance in defence where young centre-back Brede Hangeland is expected to retain his place, despite captain Claus Lundekvam's return from injury. The spotlight will also be on the English-based John Arne Riise and Morten Gamst Pedersen, whose recent contributions have not met their usual high standards according to some observers.
Czech Republic breakdown:
The absences of target men Koller and Lokvenc means Czech coach Bruckner must rethink his strategy and one suggestion is that Smicer may assume an attacking role in a five-man midfield, with Milan Baros operating alone up front. It could be a testing evening for Baros, the EURO 2004 top scorer, who has struggled with injury this season and managed just one league goal for Aston Villa, the club he joined in the summer.
On the plus side, Nedved always brings a goal threat and Bruckner should be able to call on central defender Tomas Galasek, who was missing for his club Ajax last weekend due to a hamstring problem, but is expected to be fit to mark Carew. Poborsky and David Rozehnal, who also have injury concerns, should be ready too by the time the Czechs land in Oslo on Friday.
Nedved's experience contrasts markedly with the youth of 21-year-old Kristofer Haestad, a player who has come into the Norway side this year and impressed with his tireless work in the centre of the pitch. The Start midfielder has the energy to match Nedved but trying to read his opponent's next move will test the youngster to the full.
Norway have struggled for goals at home and if this remains the case on Saturday, the key for the hosts will be not to lose one as they are confident they can score in the return in Prague on 16 November. Hareide concluded: "We almost always score in away matches and create many chances. It's one of our strengths." Denying the Czechs an away goal could be easier said than done, however, even with Koller missing.