– One must not lose it completely.
That was a very clear message from national team stopper Stefan Strandberg before Norway opens EC qualification with two tough away games against Spain and Georgia on March 25 and 28.
Norway have a number of players in top form up front, led by world stars Erling Braut Haaland and Martin Ødegaard, but at the back there are a few experts who have sounded the alarm.
A pair of stoppers who impressed under Ståle Solbakken last year came into the game with minimal match training.
- Stefan Strandberg hasn’t played a meaningful game since mid-November. It’s been more than four months without proper combat training with nerves and something at stake.
- Leo Østigård was barely more prepared than his counterpart. He has only scored one cup game (17 January) for Italian top side Napoli since mid-November.
– Can teach them football
However Stefan Strandberg denied that Ståle Solbakken and Norway had custody issues ahead of the international.
– For a long time under Ståle we have been the densest defense in Europe. It’s about the way Ståle’s team plays. People have to remember that we put in a good performance. I totally disagree that it’s as dark as everyone wants it to be, Strandberg told NRK.
And come with a confident invitation:
– If people are so negative, they can sit down with me and we can analyze a bit. Then I can teach them soccer, said Strandberg.
– Who do you want to sit with?
– Anyone who slaughters defensive play. They are welcome to talk to us as individual players, I’m fine with that. I’m not as good as Erling or Martin, it doesn’t matter. But to say that it is very dark is completely wrong. All statistics show that. Those who say otherwise have not seen us for themselves, or they cling to a howling chorus or several. It wasn’t a fact, it was that simple, he believed.
NRK football pundit Åge Hareide supports Strandberg that Solbakken’s defensive style can make up for his lack of playing time.
When asked directly if he agreed it looked “fragile”, the former Norway boss replied:
– It may look like that, but I think the players are very well trained on how teams have to play defense and zone defense in that four, so they have to be effective even against good opponents. There’s a lot of talent in these boys, and maybe the fact that people are skeptical makes them want to show what’s inside of them, says Hareide.
Joking about Strandberg’s six pack
National team manager Ståle Solbakken himself is open that the defensive situation is not optimal.
However when asked by NRK if he was worried, he replied:
– We have lived by this since we took charge of this team, sometimes there is a lack of playing time, and sometimes our stoppers play in other positions at the club. But we have also shown that when we are at our best we can be very good.
At the press conference when Solbakken was selecting the squad for the upcoming internationals, he joked that the battle-ready Strandberg was in such good physical condition that it was now “possible to see the line in his stomach”.
– Then he will be disappointed when he sees me now, chuckled Strandberg.
But he insisted he was in what he described as “good shape”.
– The most important thing for me is to keep my body as healthy and fast as possible. Then I have shown over the years in the national team that I give strong matches time after time. Wish I could do it again, said the VIF stopper.
How many points will Norway take against Spain and Georgia?
– Would be a good starting point
Solbakken has previously relied on Østigård and Strandberg as partners, but against Spain he will for now, at least not externally, decide who starts in Norway’s central defence.
– It’s open, we have to watch the players in training, use our gut feeling and trained eye to choose the right stopping combinations in both games, he said.
Solbakken is set to be a tough battle for points in Norway’s first two starting qualifying matches.
– We started very difficult, but if we get some points in these two games it looks brighter for the rest of the qualifiers. If we go home with at least three points, we will have a very good starting point, believes the national team manager.
– It’s clear that this is the toughest start we could get. There’s no doubt about it. But we’re going to try to get as much out of that collection as we can. This is important, emphasized Strandberg.
“Infuriatingly humble coffee guru. Travel practitioner. Freelance zombie fanatic. Certified problem solver. Food scholar. Student.”