By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Norwegian soccer fans watched from the sidelines as their Nordic neighbours enjoyed being at this year’s World Cup in Russia, but under coach Lars Lagerback they once again look like contenders to qualify for the finals of a major tournament.
Since his appointment in February 2017 the pragmatic Swede has rebuilt Norway into a team that won their Nations League Group and are in with a real chance of reaching the European Championship finals for the first time in 20 years.
“I’m relatively happy – you can always be better, but we haven’t just delivered good results. In my opinion we have taken some very big steps in how we play, in particular defensively,” the 70-year-old Lagerback told Reuters in an interview.
“We need to be more effective in front of goal, but we have been very good in getting to the penalty area. The players have done very well, they work hard and we have created a good organisation within the team.”
He was given the job with a view to recreating his success with Sweden and then Iceland, whom he turned into a powerhouse that reached the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, famously beating England on the way, despite a population of just over 300,000.
Lagerback is using the same formula of hard work and a well-organised defence and it delivered success in Norway’s Nations League group with promotion to League B and a Euro 2020 playoff spot if they fail to progress from their qualifying group.
“The foundations are the same for the most part. There have been some changes in how we work tactically, but it’s still very similar. In attack, it depends on the players we have, but we try to have as much variation as possible,” Lagerback explained.
“There’s always discussions about philosophies of how one should play football, but there’s never really anything new under the footballing sun. The biggest change in my time is that the game has become faster and faster.”
Although soccer is popular in Norway, it is overshadowed by cross-country skiing, but Lagerback is hoping the Euro 2020 qualifiers, in which they face Spain, Sweden, Romania, the Faroe Islands and Malta, will bring the fans flooding back.
“The tone has been more positive lately, even if we haven’t sold out our stadium, but we hope they will come and support us,” he said, with Norway having last reached the World Cup in 1998 before their only appearance at the Euros in 2000.
“Even if we’re meeting a team like Spain we have a chance to win, then you can always discuss how big that chance is. We’ll prepare properly and hopefully we’ll be there battling for first or second place.”
The top two teams from each group qualify for the Euro 2020 finals, which are being staged at venues across the continent.
With another shot at a major tournament in reach, Lagerback said he had plenty of energy and no intention of retiring yet.
“I have a contract for next year and for the playoffs, so if they don’t fire me I’m counting on being there,” he said.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; editing by Ken Ferris)