Norway’s troubled World Cup odyssey came to a shuddering halt with a 3-1 loss to Japan in the last 16 on Saturday as the Scandinavians once again failed to find the balance needed to prosper at a major tournament.
Coach Hege Riise tinkered with her side throughout the World Cup but never managed to find the lineup or tactics that would get the most out of her squad, and she faces an uncertain future after a third poor showing in four tournaments.
“We knew Japan would have a lot of possession and we had to be strong in defence to not allow them to play too much into us,” she said of her plan for Saturday’s match.
“But (Japan) did well, we played solid defence at times but not quite good enough.”
Norway’s opening 1-0 defeat by New Zealand may not have been on a par with the 8-0 hammering they suffered at the hands of England at last year’s Euros, but it was almost as embarrassing, and it set the tone for another disappointing campaign.
Riise quickly jettisoned young winger Julie Blakstad and went instead with Emelie Haavi and Tuva Hansen on the left flank, but the two right-footers struggled, rendering their wing almost entirely ineffective.
In midfield, Riise’s dilemma was who to pick between Frida Maanum, Ingrid Engen and Vilde Boe Risa, and she probably would have been better off playing all three and pushing Guro Reiten, who was lost in a central role, up into attack the left side.
Riise’s gravest error came when she dropped Caroline Graham Hansen for the second group game against Switzerland, prompting a near-mutiny from the Barcelona winger who was her team’s best player when she returned to the fold against the Philippines.
Norway’s defence was also shaky, with Hansen at left back and youthful central defender Mathilde Harviken targeted by opponents.
Stalwart Maren Mjelde was as sold as always and right back Thea Bjelde has a bright future at international level, but the imbalance in the rest of the side was mercilessly exploited by a Japanese team that had no problem zoning in on their weaknesses.
A groin twinge sidelined striker Ada Hegerberg but Sophie Roman Haug stepped up and did an excellent job with a hat-trick against the Philippines, one of few bright spots for the Norwegians at an otherwise forgettable tournament.
If Riise, a World Cup winner with Norway in 1995, cannot mend the bridges she burned by dropping Graham Hansen, she may not have another chance to see if she can get the most out of a side that is now best known for being far less than the sum of its parts.