By Marcus Christenson
David Beckham and Gianfranco Zola may have left the Premiership, but there is still enough talent in England to have set-piece aficionados drooling with anticipation.
Not least in the form of Norway and Liverpool FC full-back John Arne Riise, and when it comes to mixing power and accuracy, there are few better. The 22-year-old is deadly from distance, as seen in November 2002 when his violent strike from 30 metres crashed past Fabien Barthez as Liverpool beat Manchester United FC; but his skills are probably even more important for his country.
During the UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign, Riise has been behind no fewer than five of the team's eight goals. This has helped Norway to second place in Group 2, two points behind leaders Denmark, and they have a crucial game against Bosnia-Herzegovina coming up on Saturday when the Danes do not play.
Practice makes perfect
Speaking to uefa.com, Riise explained how he has worked hard to improve his free-kicks since being appointed the nation's set-piece specialist in 2001. "
I think being given the responsibility by Norway made me work even harder on my free-kicks," he said. "The only way to get better is to practise your kicks all the time until you get the right feeling in your foot. Then, if it helps the team, it is even better."
Riise belongs to a new generation trying to escape the long-ball game associated with Norway since the days of former national coach Egil Olsen. "It is fair to say that Norway played boring long-ball football maybe three years ago and before that," he said. "But for the past two or three years we have tried to change our style a bit and play a bit more through the middle. But our strengths are also the long balls and the set-pieces and we have to use that and change our tactics throughout the game to make it as difficult as possible for our opponents."
Riise is hoping to take part in his second major tournament after making the squad, but not the team, for the UEFA EURO 2000™ finals in Belgium and the Netherlands. His selection marked a sea change from the criticism that followed his decision to move, aged 17, from Aalesund FK to AS Monaco FC, having not played a game in the Norwegian Premier Division. But Riise is now an integral part of the side aiming for Portugal next summer. He said: "Everything is up to us really. If we win all our games then we will finish at least second."
Currently rivalling Norway for second place are Romania, who are a point behind and welcome lowly Luxembourg to Ploiesti on Saturday. The Romanians are without key players in Lucian Sanmartean, Gabriel Tamas, Marian Aliuta, Marius Niculae and Cosmin Contra, but are still expected to win and keep the pressure on the Norwegians. Anghel Iordanescu's men then travel to Denmark next Wednesday when Norway do not play.
Riise, though, is confident of his side's chances. "The next two games, against Bosnia-Herzegovina and then Luxembourg in October, are going to be difficult but I have a feeling we will win both," he said. "Then, if Denmark slip up, we would be through. But at the moment second place is our target and the game against Bosnia is going to be the key one and a tough one."
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