With promotion to the UEFA Nations League’s top tier at stake, Norway and Serbia clash in Oslo on Tuesday evening, in a winner-takes-all encounter.
Locked together on points atop League B Group 4, the two sides meet on the final day knowing that – due to their head-to-head record – anything other than a Serbian victory would see the hosts seal first place.
Despite their slip-up in Slovenia at the weekend, Norway can still reach League A after Tuesday’s Group 4 finale, having started the inaugural Nations League among Europe’s third echelon back in 2018.
Promoted at the end of the first edition, the Lions then finished second on their first appearance at League B level, and are now within touching distance of mixing with the elite.
After registering an impressive record of three wins and a draw from their quartet of games in the summer, Norway resumed with a trip to Ljubljana on Saturday, and Erling Haaland’s 21st international goal from just 22 caps put them on course for another success shortly after the interval.
However, their hosts fought back, and strikes from potent front pair Andraz Sporar and Benjamin Sesko – the latter currently following in the footsteps of Haaland at RB Salzburg – consigned the Norwegians to a 2-1 defeat.
Combined with a Serbia win over Norway’s Nordic rivals Sweden later in the day, that saw Stale Solbakken’s side caught on 10 points by the World Cup-bound Eagles; setting up a dramatic conclusion to the group at Ullevaal Stadion.
By contrast with their visitors, Norway have failed to qualify for a major tournament since Euro 2000 – during Solbakken’s playing days – but with an exciting new era apparently dawning – led by Haaland and captain Martin Odegaard – they will aim to continue their upward trajectory on Tuesday.
Resounding winners over Sweden on the fifth matchday, Serbia’s only defeat of the current Nations League campaign came at home to the Norwegians, in June, when they were ultimately beaten by a single Haaland strike despite dominating both the ball and the shot count.
Otherwise, the Eagles have continued to soar this year, as they now follow an impressive qualification for Qatar 2022 with a productive run in Europe’s newest international competition.
Once again, star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic was to the fore in Belgrade, with a hat-trick against the Swedes helping his nation to a comprehensive 4-1 victory – and that after going a goal behind early on.
Now only one goal short of his international half-century, the Fulham hotshot features among an impressive cast of attacking players for Dragan Stojkovic’s side; befitting the style in which the Serbia coach gained such renown in his playing career. Furthermore, they have now won eight of their last 12 matches.
Having already accumulated four more points than in their previous Nations League campaign, when they only avoided relegation on goal difference, adding three more in Norway would take them into the continent’s elite next time around.
After finishing above Portugal to dramatically clinch automatic World Cup qualification – secured through Mitrovic’s 90th-minute winner on the final day – the Serbs also have one eye on the looming global finals, so Stojkovic’s squad will be keen to impress and secure seats on the plane to Qatar.
Having generally settled on a 4-3-3 setup in recent months, Norway coach Stale Solbakken must decide whether to stick or twist on the final day, with just one point enough to beat their opponents to top spot.
In any case, the personnel which started the loss to Slovenia should not change too much, with Martin Odegaard skippering the side after overcoming a calf problem which kept him out of Arsenal’s most recent game. Erling Haaland leads the line up front, having netted his sixth goal in five Nations League matches on Saturday – Norway have scored seven in all.
At least one switch will be made in midfield, though, as Kristian Thorstvedt must serve a one-match ban due to accumulated bookings; Morten Thorsby is his most likely replacement.
While the hosts have a fearsome forward to worry the Serbian defence, the visitors’ front line will be led by vice-captain Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has racked up 49 goals in 75 international appearances following his treble at the weekend.
Influential midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will be sidelined, though, after picking up another yellow card against Sweden, which may see Sampdoria’s Filip Djuricic or Ivan Ilic of Verona drafted into the side that starts in Oslo.
Nikola Milenkovic is absent from the back three due to injury, so Serbia’s defence will be lacking a little experience – two of the trio that lined up on Saturday have just three senior caps between them.
It appears that Dragan Stojkovic has now settled on a regular goalkeeper, and Sergej’s younger brother Vanja Milinkovic-Savic should pip Sevilla’s Marko Dmitrovic to feature as the Eagles’ last line of defence.
Norway possible starting lineup:
Nyland; Ryerson, Hanche-Olsen, Ostigard, Meling; Odegaard, Berge, Thorsby; Elyounoussi, Haaland, Sorloth
Serbia possible starting lineup:
V. Milinkovic-Savic; Babic, S. Mitrovic, Masovic; Lazovic, Lukic, Ilic, Kostic; Djuricic, Tadic; A. Mitrovic