A flurry of first half goals proved enough for Norway to run out impressive winners in their opening match of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in Reims after a flurry of first half goals.
Guro Reiten and Lisa-Marie Utland both got their names on the scoresheet before Osinachi Ohale put through her own net all in the first half.
The second half started on a sour note after a serious injury to Nigerian defender Faith Michael, who after a lengthy delay was stretchered off the pitch.
Norway continued to push for a fourth, but couldn’t add to their total for the evening.
The match at the Stade Auguste-Delaune II got off to a blistering start, with chances falling early to both sides. Norway showed off their technical ability, fashioning intricate moves, while Nigeria relied on long diagonals and raw athleticism to burst into crossing positions out wide.
Norway fashioned a number of chances, with midfielder Caroline Graham showing great feet, but time and time again there was a wave of green Nigerian shirts on hand to crowd out the danger.
Soon after, there was nearly a dramatic moment as Nigeria’s captain Desire Oparanozie was booked for a flailing arm. Just moments after, furious at the decision, she barrelled into the back of another Norwegian player hotheadedly and risked a second caution in quick succession.
Referee Kate Jacewicz offered her generosity and just warned the Nigerian forward, but it was dangerous play from the African nation’s on-pitch leader.
Some real ingenuity then fashioned out the opening goal of the game after 17 minutes. Having been faced with the crowding Nigerian defence at every opportunity, Graham and Reiten relied on quick thinking from a corner.
Taking the corner short, Reiten then peeled off in an arc run into the box as Graham dribbled into the Nigerian area. Playing the ball back to her corner partner, Reiten made no mistake in smashing the shot goalwards, getting the luck of the draw as it deflected away from the Nigerian goalkeeper Tochukwu Oluehi and into the back of the net.
Norway’s own defence got a test not long after, as Nigeria looked to slip in behind through their powerful running, but centre back Maren Mjelde showed her own turn of pace and some supreme confidence to twist and turn under pressure from Oparanozie before fashioning the space to clear unchallenged.
Reiten started becoming more and more of a bane in the side of the Nigerian defence and once again she was involved in the Europeans’ second goal.
A clipped ball forward was nodded clear by the Nigerian defence but Reiten had the greater desire to win the ball, powering in ahead of her opponent, and slipping in Utland. The Norwegian forward lashed a venomous strike on goal that drove through Oluehi’s gloves and into the roof of the net.
That strike proved to be just Utland’s fifth touch on the pitch – the lowest of anyone playing. The Norway striker put testament to the saying that it doesn’t matter how much you have the ball, rather what you do with it.
Much the same could be said for Norway three minutes later when they latched onto the end of a poor touch from a Nigerian corner and Isabell Herlovsen clipped in a cross that Ohale had the misfortune of putting beyond her own keeper.
That was Norway’s third goal of the game with just their second strike on target.
Their impressive display in the first half didn’t stop some shaky moments though, as they nearly let in Nigerian winger Francisca Ordega from an underhit backpass – thankfully for the Norwegian defence’s blushes, experienced goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth was alert to the danger.
The resulting long throw caused utter chaos in the box but the African nation, despite throwing countless green shirts at both the initial and second chances, simply couldn’t convert.
Graham then took it upon herself to pick the game up on her back just as it was threatening to become scrappy on the stroke of halftime, setting off on a mesmerising dribble through midfield, skipping past challenges with some silky movement.
She slipped in Reiten, who was brought down by the Nigerian defence. Mjelde lined up the resulting free kick but could only skim the crossbar.
After the interval, Norway continued to try to pick up where they left off, until an unfortunate accidental collision halted the game for several minutes.
As a Norwegian cross was clipped in, Michael heading towards her goal was tripped by the leg of her out-rushing goalkeeper Oluehi. The Nigerian defender suffered a heavy landing and was clearly in serious discomfort.
After several minutes of lengthy medical treatment, largely remaining prone on the field, Michael left on a stretcher. It appeared a nasty injury and immediately after the game the tournament social media wished their best to the Nigerian player.
The medical team treating the player deserved praise too. They took absolutely no chances with the player, showing the upmost priority to her care and treatment, remaining attentive and ensuring all proper medical protocol was taken – something that is encouraging to see after so many controversies of that nature in recent times in the men’s game.
After Michael was replaced by 18-year-old Chidinma Okeke play resumed and Norway once again looked to go for the jugular. Graham was the first to sprint clean through, but for the newly-introduced Okeke to steal in for the ball and manage good distance sprinting away down the pitch.
Play continued much the same way from then on out, with Norway knocking at the door again and again, yet repeatedly they were faced up by a wall of determined, resilient green shirts and a goalkeeper determined not to pick the ball out of her net any more times that night.
That was ultimately how the match grounded out, with coach Thomas Dennerby’s well-drilled Nigerian defence managing to withstand the continuous onslaught, occasionally pouncing with their own driven counterattack.
Opposition coach Martin Sjogren looked to introduce a number of attacking options to try and add to the scoreline and capitalise on their dominance of play, but Nigeria stood firm.
Ultimately, Norway began to ease off the pressure and settled to secure their clean sheet as well as the victory, knowing that goal difference could prove important going forwards in the tournament, and not conceding would do as good for the side as scoring again.
Come the final whistle in Reims, it was a confident and assured display from Norway – who showed no signs of being a side bereft of the Women’s Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg (who doesn’t represent her national side and hasn’t since 2017 due to contractual disputes and personal grievances over funding and practices in regards to the women’s game).
The 1995 competition winners looked as impressive a side as some of the other top teams in this tournament to play so far have – the likes of France and Germany – and laid down their marker of intent here in France against a good Nigeria side not to be laughed off.
As for Nigeria, it wasn’t the start they would have wanted, but it is a case of dusting themselves off and coach Dennerby rallying the troops to learn from this game. There is still a long way to go in the tournament and their a team with plenty of world class talent in their roster, so they could still pick up some great results going forwards.
Hopefully, too, the injury to Michael is not as serious as it looked; nobody wishes to see a player suffer an injury, especially not early in a major tournament.