20220118 NOR Feature

Norway’s rebuild brings thorny questions

EHF / Adrian Costeiu

It is safe to say that the EHF EURO 2022 has not gone quite to plan for Norway. The 2020 bronze medal winners lost only one game two years ago, but matched their tally in the preliminary round in Košice, after conceding a painful 22:23 loss against Russia.

“It left for some soul searching for myself and for the team,” admits Christian Berge, who is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the competition, having taken over the Scandinavian side in 2014.

Since that moment, Norway became a true powerhouse, having secured silver at the IHF Men’s World Championship in 2017 and 2019, bronze at the EHF EURO 2020 and never finishing lower than seventh at any major international tournament.

But for the current EHF EURO, things began to go awry long before the start of the competition. Losing two key backs in Magnus Rød and Gøran Johannessen due to injuries was a huge blow. So too was the retirement of captain Bjarte Myrhol and left wing Magnus Jøndal.

That means that Norway surrounded their core of experienced players with young guns, who are still trying to find their feet at a major tournament. And it was there to be seen in the loss against Russia, which leads to Norway starting group II of the main round in Bratislava with zero points.

“We were not doing the things we used to do in that game and the scoreboard confirmed it. We were too slow in transition, always making that extra dribble, players were pretty much playing from themselves,” thinks Berge.

“After that defeat, myself and the whole team pushed the reset button, because it could have gotten worse. Fortunately, we were able to beat Lithuania and qualified for the main round,” Berge adds.

Indeed, Norway defeated Lithuania in the last match in group F of the preliminary round, 35:29, and progressed to the main round in Bratislava, where they will now face Spain, Germany, Poland and Sweden.

But it was not plain sailing, as Lithuania led by as many as two goals in the first half and only Norway’s superior experience and depth tilted the scales in their favour.

Is Sagosen really back to his best?

Surely, Norway could not have got better without the help of Sander Sagosen, who was nursing some injuries himself before the start of the tournament and was missing in action in the first two games against Slovakia and Russia.

Sagosen, the top goal scorer at the EHF EURO 2020, when he scored 65 goals, a record, combined for only seven goals in the first two matches.

He doubled his tally against Lithuania, when he went full gas from the start, also adding seven assists on his way to being named the Grundfos Player of the Match.

“It was the Sander we knew before and we really needed him to be back at his best. Being the best player in the world always brings high expectations of him and I want him to show why he is considered the best,” says Berge.

Sagosen sits now in 16th place in the top goal scorer standings, with 14 goals from 25 shots, but is third in the top assist standings, dishing 17 to his teammates, four short of the leader, Sweden’s Jim Gottfridsson.
Ultimately, Berge can only do so much to impact the team and the most rests on the player’s shoulders. At his second EHF EURO in his career, back Sander Øverjordet unlocked Lithuania’s defence with his powerful shots, his fastest clocked at 122.7 km/h.

20220118 NOR Sagosen POTM

Despite scoring only 22 goals against Russia, Norway still have the second most efficient attack in the competition in terms of goals scored, with 92, only three fewer than Denmark. But, according to Berge, they still have a long way to go.

“The game against Lithuania was better, almost in every aspect, from the previous one, against Russia. We did the things we were supposed to do and I really think it can be a crucial building block for our future in the competitions,” adds Berge.

Sebastian Barthold, who is Norway’s top scorer at the EHF EURO 2022, with 18 goals in the first three matches of the preliminary round, agrees.

“We had long meetings between us, analysed what went wrong and started to motivate ourselves, because we realised that nobody will be there to change the outcome if we did not do it ourselves. Therefore, we truly have a different mindset now and we are ready for everything that comes our way,” concludes Barthold, who became the top player on the left wing after Jøndal’s retirement.

Starting the main round with no points means that Norway have a mountain to climb if they want to repeat their performance from two years ago. They will play against Poland and Germany in the first two games, concluding the matches in group II with clashes against their bête noire, Spain, and Scandinavian rivals, Sweden.

“I only think about the next game, against what we can do ourselves to put us in a better position,” says Berge.

For Norway, there is literally no room for mistake. The Scandinavian side has made some steps back in the last years, finishing sixth at the IHF Men’s World Championship 2021 and seventh at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and are now faced with the bleak prospect of missing a medal once again. Only the next week will decide whether they have really hit that reset button or not.

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