Despite its global popularity, football remains inflected by regional influences. A most Scandinavian team in its style of play, Norway, under their Swedish coach Martin Sjögren, are therefore well-organised, disciplined, and team-focused.
With most of the pre-tournament focus surrounding a player who isn’t in France in a playing capacity, Ada Hegerberg, those that are have been galvanised into an even closer-knit group. Which isn’t to suggest this team is without stars.
In Caroline Graham Hansen and Guro Reiten Norway possess two of the women’s game’s rising talents – with Barcelona and Chelsea swooping to sign the pair from the German and Norwegian leagues respectively in the past month.
The right and left midfielders bring an x-factor to an otherwise solid 4-4-2 system that preferences defensive stability over attacking flair – in three games so far the Norwegians average under 2.5 shots on target per game, with their six goals coming from two penalties, two own goals, a deflected shot and just one from open play.
On paper this wouldn’t overly concern Ante Milicic and his staff, except for the fact that the Matildas have been most vulnerable this tournament in transition. Norway won’t come at Australia like Jamaica or Brazil, but like Italy in game one, they’ll happily hit swiftly on the counter-attack, showing themselves to be incredibly efficient against Nigeria – racing to a 3-0 lead before half-time without necessarily dominating the match.
There is however an injury cloud hanging over star player Graham Hansen, who was felled in a clumsy tackle during Norway’s third group-stage match against South Korea, and remains the subject of close scrutiny, with Norwegian journalists monitoring her incremental progress at training.
Even if the three-time Frauen-Bundesliga winner isn’t 100%, Norway’s team-wide workrate is such that they’ll be able to carry her – they have outrun all their opponents, including France, this tournament – with Milicic already apprehensive about their fitness and discipline.
“It’s definitely a concern,” Milicic said after the Jamaica match. “This is the game now with a three-day turnaround, and I know the opposition having one extra day, which means a lot – and you could have to prepare for 120 minutes and penalties. We’ve had an opportunity to freshen up a couple tonight, but we really have to have a look at it in the next couple of days and see where the girls are at.”
While injury, a lack of pre-tournament match minutes and fatigue are now real factors for the Matildas – especially in defence – Norway have enjoyed continuity at the back. Teammates at club level, the centre-back pairing of Maria Thorisdottir and captain Maren Mjelde are rock-solid, ahead of the hugely experienced 133-cap, 39-year-old goalkeeper, Ingrid Hjelmseth.
The midfield pairing of 21-year-old Ingrid Engen and 23-year-old Vilde Boe Risa is the only area of inexperience, with the remaining starting XI all boasting 30-plus international caps. The pair held their own against the hosts France in front of an intimidating crowd of nearly 35,000 – in Nice – but it remains an area where the Matildas could yet assert some dominance.
Australia, meanwhile, could hand youngster Karly Roestbakken – herself of Norwegian heritage – just a third cap at the troubled left-back position.
One player who will know plenty about her game is substitute striker Elise Thorsnes, who played alongside Roestbakken and Ellie Carpenter in the W-League for Canberra United in 2017-18.
If that is a vital source of intel inside the Norwegian camp, the Matildas might be inclined to drop a line to experienced Australian referee Kate Jacewitz, who with compatriot Casey Reibelt as fourth official, oversaw Norway’s opening clash with Nigeria.
What looms in Nice therefore is a fascinating match. With Milicic repeatedly urging his charges to embrace a proactive attacking style of football, in Norway they could encounter their perfect nemeses. And if the ability to capitalise ruthlessly on any errors at the back doesn’t get the Matildas, a capacity to endlessly soak up pressure and wear down attacking sides over 120 minutes could.
An experienced, tactically-astute coach, Sjögren guided Swedish club Linkopings FC, undefeated, to a Damallsvenskan championship in 2016, finishing ahead of a Rosengård team starring Marta and Lieke Martens.
But for a contentious VAR-penalty to seal a 2-1 loss against France, his blueprint to neutralise a quality attack-minded opponent could have worked to perfection. On Saturday (Sunday AEST) in Nice we’ll find out in Norway can fine-tune the plan against the Matildas.