King 44 pen.
Two goals late in the first half propelled Norway to a comfortable victory over Malta at the Ulleval Stadium in Oslo and keep alive their hopes of securing a berth in next year’s Euro 2020 finals.
In fact the Norwegians have leapfrogged Romania to third place on eight points and remain two adrift of second-placed Sweden, who yesterday crushed bottom-placed Faroe Islands 4-0. Malta remained second from bottom on three points.
It was far from a vintage performance from Lars Lagerback’s men who looked short of ideas for much of the opening half as they struggled to breakdown a defensive-minded Malta team.
But as happens time and again a lapse in concentration proved fatal for the visitors as poor marking handed Sander Berge the opportunity to put the Norwegians ahead and from then on their was no way back for Malta.
The Maltese struggled to come out from their half with poor passing and lack of forward movement inevitably paving the way for the Norwegians to put pile up more pressure on the visitors’ defence and inevitably killing off the match as a contest with a second goal from the penalty spot just before half-time.
After the break, the Maltese tried to come out of their half but they lacked any short of attacking impetus with Kyrian Nwoko and later Jean Paul Farrugia and Alfred Effiong unable to do any sort of damage.
In the end it was a disappointing night for Malta and one hopes that they will show more courage to play more positive football on Sunday against Romania, even though a far more difficult task await our players against a team who are desperate for points to try and reclaim second spot from Sweden.
Malta coach Ray Farrugia handed a start to young Hibernians midfielder Dunstan Vella who collected his second international cap after he had made his debut in a friendly against Georgia last year.
Vella formed the team’s engine room alongside the more experienced Rowen Muscat and Paul Fenech who shielded the defensive trio of Zach Muscat, Andrei Agius and Steve Borg. Joseph Mbong and Juan Corbalan were the team’s two wingback while upfront Jake Grech played just behind main striker Kyrian Nwoko.
Norway handed a debut to young Erling Braut Haland, the son of Alf Inge Haland, a former midfielder of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. Haland, who made a name for himself when scoring nine goals for his country in a 12-0 thrashing of Honduras in the U-20 World Cup, partnered Joshua King upfront.
Martin Odegaard, Norway’s young prodigy who is on the books of Real Sociedad after a stint at Real Madrid, started on the right flank and was supported by the in-form Omar Elabdellaoui, of Olympiakos.
Right from the kick off, Norway held the welter share of possession but were struggling to breach the organized Malta defence. Their main ploy was to send diagonal long balls on the nippy Maltese wing backs Mbong and Corbalan but the Maltese managed to avert the danger.
After 19 minutes, coach Farrugia suffered a blow as Zach Muscat picked up an injury following a collision with Bonello and had to be replaced with Ferdinando Apap.
Norway had to wait until the 25th minute for their first opportunity when Even Hovland outmuscled Kyrian Nwoko to latch onto Odegaard corner kick but headed wide.
Malta forced their first corner on 28 minutes. The Norwegian defence cleared Paul Fenech’s delivery onto Andrei Agius who volleyed the ball over.
Two minutes later, Bonello did well to block King’s shot from the edge of the area.
Norway used their aerial prowess to forge ahead on 33 minutes. Hovland ran into the area to meet Havard Nordtveit’s long throw and the Norwegian defender nodded the ball towards Sander Berge who dived full stretch to head past Bonello.
The goal inevitably lifted the Norwegians’ spirit and four minutes from the break they were unlucky not to double their lead when Stefan Johansen showed great skill to avoid his marker and let fly a curling drive that Bonello touched onto the bar.
A minute from the break, Norway doubled their lead when Hovland was upended in the area by Nwoko and from the spot King drilled the ball past Bonello – 2-0.
Norway kept pressing on the accelerator on the restart and on 46 minutes Johansen intercepted a poor clearance by Bonello to charge forward and quickly set up Odegaard who denied by the Malta no.1.
Six minutes later, King latched onto another ball into Malta’s area but his header flew past both Bonello and the onrushing Haland before Dunstan Vella cleared to a corner.
There were finally some signs of a reaction from the visitors round the hour mark with Corbalan managing to burst clear but his deliveries failed to find a team-mate.
Farrugia tried to boost his team’s forward line but withdrawing the tiring Paul Fenech and Jake Grech and roped in Jean Paul Farrugia Alfred Effiong.
Instead it was Norway who threatened as six minutes from time Tarik Elyounoussi turned past Apap but fired into the side-netting.
Malta had a glimmer of a chance on 87 minutes when Mbong sped past his marker and picked Farrugia who headed over.
The final chance of the match fell to the excellent Odegaard who hit wide but the Norwegians were long home and dry.