Norway 3-0 Nigeria; Impressive first half display sees Norway through to victory

Norway 3-0 Nigeria; Impressive first half display sees Norway through to victory

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.

Spain 3-1 South Africa; Penalties help see Spain to victory after stunning Kgatlana opener

Spain 3-1 South Africa; Penalties help see Spain to victory after stunning Kgatlana opener

Two penalty goals from forward Jennifer Hermoso, and a third from 20-year-old Lucia Garcia, were enough to ensure Spain didn’t suffer an opening game loss to World Cup newcomers South Africa after an early shock in Le Havre.

Prior to playing in their first ever Women’s World Cup match, South Africa coach Desiree Ellis stressed the seismic differences between the quality of their domestic football league and the standards on display in these finals.

However, just 25 minutes in Thembi Kgatlana pulled off a magnificent strike to give Banyana Banyana a shock lead against their Spanish opposition.

Unfortunately, a handball given against captain Janine van Wyk gifted Hermoso the chance to level the scores, before a VAR decision deemed South African full back Nothando Vilakazi to have followed through on her opponent after a clearance.

Hermoso dispatched again, before Garcia wrapped up the game with a pacy run in the closing moments, rounding goalkeeper Andile Dlamini and slotting home to make it three to Spain in the Stade Oceane.

The Spaniards had come into the game with the greater expectations on their shoulders, with a more developed domestic game and star striker Hermoso expected to shine.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps then, Spain did indeed dominate the opening ten minutes or so of the contest. Maria Leon, Spain’s central defender, fired a free kick from the edge of the box just over the top as the European nation continued to try and capitalise on their early control.

Crucially though – as South Africa had always targeted to do so – they kept the scoreline goalless.

That allowed the South African players to settle into the game and grow in confidence, before launching the first of their blistering counterattacks. Prior to kickoff, the raw athleticism of the South African players had been highlighted as their best weapon, and they demonstrated why to the highest degree.

Barrelling forwards at a blistering speed, those in bright yellow jerseys managed to fashion a chance before earning a free kick right on the edge of the Spanish box.

Full back Vilakazi stepped up and absolutely thundered an effort towards the top corner of Sandra Paños’ goal, and it looked set to strike the target but for a crucial header from Leon. From the resulting corner, Paños’ gloves were stung direct from the in-swinging delivery.

Spain had been warned of the dangers on the counterattack, and so it came as little surprise to see Kgatlana and her teammates bombing forwards once again not long later.

A heavy touch looked to have ended the chance, as Spanish defenders flooded back, but it was slipped through to Kgatlana on the edge of the box and after one touch inside she unleashed a stunning chipped effort at goal, perfectly gliding over the fingertips of Paños and into the far corner of the net.

It was an incredible strike, and an unbelievable way for Banyana Banyana to net their first ever goal, in their first ever game, at the Women’s World Cup.

Spain attempted to come back into the match, and still maintained more possession of the football, but after the goal the confidence was flowing with South Africa. Every time they got the ball, the African nation looked long to capitalise on their significant pace advantage, and every time they looked incredibly dangerous.

Kgatlana and her fellow strike partner Ode Fulutudilu repeatedly bullied the Spanish defenders and fashioned dangerous opportunities.

In the closing seconds of the first half, Spain almost fashioned an equaliser after a speculative effort from some way outside the box by full back Marta Corredera, whose looping effort required South African goalkeeper Dlamini – who isn’t the tallest figure in goal – to be aware but she saved well.

A double change at half time demonstrated the frustration and need for a different method from Spain, and once again in the second half they took complete control of the ball – but struggled to fashion the necessary final chance to level the scores.

South Africa nearly added a second when Fulutudilu nipped in with her great pace and burst towards the touchline, beating Leon. Getting a good cross in from the byline, some poor Spanish defending saw it through to Kgatlana but she could only direct it against the scrambling Paños.

Despite the scare, Jorge Vilda’s side continued to boss the ball about the pitch. However, they still had to rely on an intervention from the referee’s whistle before they could get back into the game.

Courtesy of the new rules over handball, South Africa captain van Wyk was penalised for a handball that Hermoso dispatched, sending Dlamini the wrong direction.

That sparked the Spanish revival, and moments later they thought they’d equalised when Montpellier midfielder Virginia Torrecilla outjumped the onrushing South African goalkeeper, but the linesman quickly and correctly flagged her for offside.

It didn’t take long to break the deadlock, though, and again the officials had a hand in it all. Vilakazi hooked clear a ball and, as she fell backwards, followed through with the clearance – catching her opponent high in the groin.

A nasty challenge, certainly, it didn’t look intentional but those officials in the VAR room felt it enough to warrant a check. Once the on-field referee had seen the footage too, there was another penalty to Spain and a second yellow to Vilakazi; the tournament’s first dismissal.

Dlamini guessed the right way this time but couldn’t stop Hermoso turning the score around and breaking South African spirits.

With tired legs and broken hearts, the South African defence struggled to contain Spain’s late resurgence, letting sprightly 20-year-old substitute Garcia break in behind. Knocking the ball past the onrushing Dlamini, the Athletic Bilbao star simply couldn’t miss and converted Spain’s third – perhaps flattering the Europeans on the scoreline.

Spain kept pushing until the final whistle, but couldn’t find any more. At the sound of full time, they knew they’d done enough to finish top of the group after the first round of matches – though that first half against South Africa will have left coach Vilda with some definite concerns.

For South Africa, they ultimately walked away from their first Women’s World Cup match empty-handed, but can hold their heads up high. It was an incredible, spirited performance and one that deserves the highest praise.

Ultimately, a mixture of unfortunate luck with decisions going against them in the box and a lower level of fitness (as to be expected given the disparity in domestic football between the two nations) proved just too much of a hurdle to overcome.

For debutants in this tournament, they showed exactly why South African women’s football deserves to be on the highest stage.