January 9, 2014
When the final buzzer sounded on December 18, 2013 at Belgrade’s Kombank arena one of the most impressive records in handball history had come to an end. For the first time since 2005 the Norwegian national handball team had not reached the semi-final of a major tournament. In a thrilling quarter-final match Norway surrendered to host Serbia after leading twice by a score of five. What were the reasons of this uncharacteristic collapse?
The Scandinavian favorites started game number 78 of the competition in champion like manner with a crisp and concentrated 6:0 defensive formation while running up a five-point goal differential. A stellar performance of goalkeeper Katrine Lunde (saved three penalty shots) contributed greatly to an apparent effortless lead. On the defensive end Serbia struggled to keep Linn-Jorum Sulland at bay. The experienced right-back was a constant threat and either scored or created opportunities for line player Heidi Loke. Still team Serbia withstood the initial pressure and clawed their way back into the game. As the match progressed Norway’s defense somewhat slipped and Sanja Damjanovic was able to keep her team in the game almost single handedly. Her desperation shot from 14 meters reduced the deficit to 15:16 at half-time much to the joy of a frenetic audience.
The second half began with a penalty for Jelena Zivkovic and soon Serbia saw itself falling behind by five goals yet again. The home crowd that filled Kombank arena almost to capacity was taken out and Hergeirsson’s team looked ready to place the final knock-out punch. But after Alstad’s one and only goal in the 39th minute Norway’s numerous fans would have to wait another 12 minutes before Nora Moerk would end the drought. What had happened?
Three critical coaching calls shaped the ultimate outcome of the game. At the beginning of the second half Norway’s Thorir Hergeirsson opted for Tonje Nostvold as right-back while placing Sulland on the bench until the 55th (!) minute of the match. Why? A question asked by many who follow Norway’s “Gull Jentene” closely. And why did not Sulland take the penalty shots in the second half? She had not missed on previous attempts. By the time Linn-Jorum found herself back on the court again Serbia had already taken a commanding lead.
Even more significant was the suspicious absence of Anja Hammerseng-Edin on the field. In total she spent less than 13 minutes on court. An understandable decision if Ida Alstadt would have been clicking on all cylinders – but she didn’t. In fact she was struggling throughout the match not able to score once from distance.
Meanwhile Sasa Boskovic had ordered Jelena Eric to play central defense next to Sanja Damjanovic. A tactical move that paid-off big. Eric showed nothing short of a world-class performance while organizing an aggressive 6:0 defense allowing only nine goals in the second half of the match. Hergeirsson’s last-ditch effort to disrupt Serbia’s offense with a 5:1 defensive line-up did not work either. It was not his best day at the office – simply put. Later he conceded that he might have kept Sulland on the bench for too long but didn’t consider it being critical to the ultimate outcome of the game. Certainly a point of view open for debate.
While Norway’s loss came as a surprise to many it really was less astonishing when considering the challenges leading up to World Cup XXI. The sudden withdrawal of Kristine Lunde-Borgersen (pregnancy) and Marit-Malm Frafjord’s shoulder injury left an enormous void in central defense and offense alike. While it remains to be seen if Lunde-Borgersen will return a healthy Marit-Malm Frafjord is indispensable to any (future) success of team Norway. Mari Molid and Ida Alstadt performed well on the defensive end but they could not compensate for the loss of the two veteran players. A physically strong Serbian back-court directed by Andrea Lekic in addition to an exceptionally skilled line-player (Dragana Cvijic) proved to be too much to handle on that day. Not to forget goalkeeper Katarina Tomasevic who impressed with a series of fantastic saves.
Leaving a prolific streak-shooter like Linn-Jorum Sulland on the bench for a prolonged period of time ended up being costly. The fact that Ida Alstad and Tonje Nostvold had an off-day (combined 1 goal/11 attempts) did not help either, of course. Considering everything it begs the question why Anja Hammerseng-Edin did not get the opportunity to spend more time on the court? Instead Veronica Kristiansen was tapped to relief Alstadt for a few (important) minutes before Hammerseng-Edin would get her chance in the second half. At the time the match was on the line and Hammerseng-Edin with her dynamic style of play could have made a difference much earlier. Obviously Hergeirsson felt skittish rotating his two central defenders (Molid, Alstadt) at the same time. It could have further exposed Norway’s central defense to Serbian fast-breaks as Jelena Eric participated in her team’s counter attacks before settling back on the bench. By the time he changed his mind it was too late.
Norway will regroup and learn the lessons from this quarter-final loss– no question. Overall the team has too much depth and quality to turn into “road-kill” over night. Any nation that sets its sight on a championship trophy will have to dispose of Heidi Loke & Co. along the way – it’s a fact of (handball) life that is unlikely to change any time soon. Have nations like Brazil, Poland, Denmark etc. made inroads? Yes – no doubt. Can Norway be beaten? Yes, of course. Montenegro (2012) and Serbia (2013) have shown the path. Will it become easier? Unlikely. But for now… “Pobeda” Serbia.
/ J. Schutz