By Ben Holding
Northern Ireland’s first match at a major tournament ended in defeat at St Marys as a ruthless Norway side proved too much to handle for Kenny Shiels’ side as they slumped to a four one defeat to the six-time finalists.
Coming into the match and the tournament as a whole Northern Ireland have been seen as the outsiders with everyone ranking them with next to no chance of progressing from the group and instead remembering that it’s been an unbelievable achievement to get them to qualify.
The big news coming into the match was that Northern Ireland would be without their captain and key striker Marissa Callaghan who had been suffering from a toe injury since May and was deemed only fit enough for the bench. For Norway, it was a welcome return to the international scene for 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg who was making her first international appearance in five years due to her protests against the lack of respect shown towards the Norwegian national team.
Norway dictated the tempo right from the offset as Northern Ireland understandably looked nervous in the opening exchange of their first-ever major tournament match. The Scandinavian side got their reward just ten minutes in as Guro Reiten found Julie Blakstad in so much space on the left-hand side who advanced inside the penalty area and fired low at the near post which was enough to Burns in the Northern Ireland goal to give Norway a deserved lead.
It was relentless pressure early on as Norway’s high pressing caught Northern Ireland out on multiple occasions but just three minutes later it caught McCarron out in a dangerous position. She was hunted down by Maanum who disposed of the former Birmingham City midfielder as the ball ran into the path of Hegerberg who had the awareness to spot Maanum making a run to her side as she squared it leaving the keeper helpless as Maanum to tap into the back of an empty net doubling their lead.
Ada Hegerberg looked to be enjoying herself against the minnows of Northern Ireland and if it wasn’t for some brilliant defending from Abbie Magee with a last-ditch block from close range then it would’ve been three. The former Ballon d’Or winner also ended wide from close range just moments after as the domination continued and just after the half-hour mark the game was put to bed as we saw VAR involved for the first time in the evening.
A Norwegian corner came into the box and as Caldwell goes to head the ball away it strikes her arm first which was missed by the referee but after a couple of looks on VAR, it was decided that a penalty should be correctly awarded. Hansen stepped up and slotted past Jacqueline Burns who just got fingertips on the ball to her right-hand side but it wasn’t enough to prevent the shot from giving Norway their third of the evening in Southampton and that’s the way the first forty-five ended.
Northern Ireland looked very rushed and nervous in the opening forty-five minutes and straight away in the second half looked better as just four minutes into the half they made history. Norway failed to deal with a corner from Northern Ireland as Furness played it back across goal to Julie Nelson, the centre-back, who headed home to give them their first-ever goal at a major tournament.
The joy of that goal was short-lived however as just five minutes later, Reiten took a brilliant free-kick from the edge of the area which curled around the wall into the far corner and had completely unsighted Burns in the Northern Ireland goal to make it four-one to the Norwegians.
Hegerberg was denied a returning goal late on by the offside flag but Norway walked out compressive winners as they got their campaign off to a winning start.
Kenny Shiels’ after the game seemed fairly upbeat and also said that they had “created a monster” due to the team having “grown too quickly” as they play sides who are ranked much higher up than themselves.
“The score line was hard to take and I thought we deserved better than that but we are just three years into this programme and it will take ten years to get into the top 20 in Europe” He then went on to say “We were up against the two best strikers in the world and we drew the last hour of the game”.
Norway will look to get out of this group but will face a tough test against England on Monday before playing Austria next Friday in a match that many expect to determine the second qualifying spot in Group A. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland will face Austria on Monday before playing the hosts on Friday as they hope to not end their first major tournament pointless.