At the halfway point in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying, Norway lead the way in Group H, three points above Portugal – but coach Egil Olsen knows they will be doing very well if they have maintained that advantage after Saturday's visit to what he calls "the best national side in the world".
Olsen's side dropped only two points in their opening four games, which included a 1-0 victory over Portugal in September. However, at the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica this week, they will meet a side growing in confidence under Paulo Bento; after he took over following the loss in Norway, the Portuguese beat Denmark and Iceland in October, before stunning Spain 4-0 in a friendly in November.
Norway's perfect start ended with a 1-1 home draw with Denmark in March, but hopes of reaching a first major tournament since UEFA EURO 2000 remain intact despite Olsen's high opinion of their weekend hosts. "In my opinion, Portugal are the world's best national team at the moment," he said. "The best evidence to back that up is the way they beat Spain 4-0."
That said, Olsen finds reason to believe. "Portugal are favourites, but I am optimistic. We can take a point, and even win.
Portugal have to win against us, and that may be to our advantage. We will meet them with some of the things we are best at – discipline and defensive organisation. They may have the ball 65%, even 70% of the time. We will have to look to hit them on the counter. Portugal are a world-class side, but are at their best offensively."
For Olsen, an additional concern is arguably that some of his Norway players have been out of favour at their club sides, though he insisted: "I know the players' qualities, and can't concern myself with how much they have played. We are a little nation, and have to use our best players."
Bento, meanwhile, has had to wait to get his full 23-man squad together, with Nani absent at the UEFA Champions League final and then Ricardo Carvalho sidelined by a back problem suffered in training on Monday. After giving his players Tuesday day off, Bento now has his full selection including Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored in February's 2-1 loss to Argentina in Geneva but missed the following month's 1-1 draw with Chile and 2-0 defeat of Finland through injury.
Portugal know victory will confirm their recovery from a poor start to qualifying and defender Bruno Alves said: "The objective is to win and go top of the group.
Norway are a strong team, but we are preparing very well and in the end we will win."
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