FEATURE | Norway next hurdle on France’s track to qualification

The 2023 U21 European Championship kicked off on Wednesday, with a few interesting results, including defeats for both Portugal and Croatia. Spain held on to their status of favourites and so did England. France, meanwhile, took three important points against Italy in their opener on Thursday. La Squadra were likely their fiercest competition in the group. Tonight, they face Norway, who will want to pick up points after their opening-day defeat to Switzerland.

France are amongst the outsiders for the trophy this year, with a very strong group of individuals but lacking maybe cohesion and efficiency in both boxes. This point was even more evident in their 2-1 win against Italy, a game they were very lucky to win.

Following an excellent cross from Pierre Kalulu, Stade Rennais striker Arnaud Kalimuendo slotted home a backheel finish into the opposite corner to give France the lead. However, a few minutes later, Italy were back on level terms, with Pietro Pellegri heading home a freekick from Sandro Tonali. The Italian was left unmarked in the box, with Niels Nkounkou the culprit of a lapse of concentration. Eventually, after lacking a clear idea of how to clear his lines, Destiny Udogie was dispossessed by Bradley Barcola, who went on to score his first goal in this age category.

A balanced game you could say on paper. However, the Italians will feel grieved by the defeat, particularly in regards to the refereeing decisions. While Loïc Badé was rightfully sent off for a last-ditch tackle, the Italians were denied a goal in the closing minutes, as the referee failed to see the ball crossing the line. With no VAR or Goal Line Technology at this stage of the competition (it will be introduced in the quarter-finals, following this debacle), there was nobody to save Dutch referee Allard Lindhout. Nonetheless, France will be happy with the result, certainly more than with the performance.

Norway, on the other hand, began with a defeat to Switzerland. Following a brilliant run inside with a curling shot, Emil Konradsen Ceide gave Norway the lead. The Swiss retaliated with two goals, from Dan Ndoye and Kastriot Imeri. On both goals, Norwegian goalkeeper Mads Hedenstad could take a good part of the blame, his positioning being particularly poor. That being said, there is certainly a lot of talent in this team. Here’s what you need to know ahead of tonight’s game.

Get French Football News spoke to Rémi Rousseau, who closely follows Scandinavian leagues and the emerging talents within them. As he underlines, Norway are the only Scandinavian country to have qualified for this tournament, and while the countries don’t always get along, there’s certainly a feeling of flying the northern flag this time out.

As shown by the senior squad, with the likes of Erling Haaland, Martin Odegaard and Frederik Aurnes involved, Norway have a golden generation. They are gradually developing and Haaland’s success will help a nationwide push to grow the game there. Currently, the U21 team has a range of talented players, particularly on the wings, which seemingly are very similar, according to Rémi. However, he adds that the various centre-backs that have been tried out recently have not impressed anyone, neither in their physical nor their defensive qualities. That being said, Salernitana striker Erik Botheim is scoring the goals and the midfield brings a variety of profiles with a range of attacking and defensive qualities.

In this tournament, like many other smaller nations, the combination of good structure, quality management and particularly a generation of talent are the key factors to making appearances in these competitions for Norway. With this in mind, their first qualification only came in 1998, when they reached the semi-finals, and their second was back in 2013, during which they also reached the semi-finals. Since then, they came close to qualifying with Martin Ødegaard in 2017 and with Erling Haaland in 2019 but only just missed out. They are back this time, after topping Group A, ahead of Croatia and Finland. Qualification was practically ensured when they came back from 2-1 down against Croatia, with Jørgen Strand Larsen scoring the winning goal, both of which came in extra time.

Who are the threats for Norway against France?

Oscar Bobb (Manchester City): “He is one of the revelations of the year with the youth teams of City, earning the trophy of best young player of the year of the club. Always in motion, he completes his runs with wonderful dribbles and a delicate left foot. An exciting player who will no doubt please fans.”

Christos Zafeiris (Slavia Prague): “Recently transferred, he’s a short but technical midfielder, like Andrés Iniesta was at the time, who shines on the pitch with his unbelievable technique and a great vision of the play. He has already conquered the hearts of Slavia supporters and soon those of the followers of these Euros.”

Sivert Mannsverk (Molde): While other players such as Antonio Nusa, Joshua Kitolano or Johan Hove could stand out as well, Rémi wanted to present a player that Stade Rennais is following closely. “A tall player with a lean body, he impresses with his defensive impact and his intelligence. A very complete defensive midfielder, who has great passing abilities.”

France certainly have the better overall squad, but their style of play can certainly be improved. Their efficiency in both boxes will be scrutinised, with an added level of analysis upon their defensive output, particularly with Loïc Badé suspended. Pierre Kalulu could move inside or Mohamed Simakan will come into the lineup. Norway will want to bounce back after their initial defeat in order to stay alive in this group, but France could all but qualify with a win this evening.

GFFN | Tom Abadie

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