By Paul Saffer
Norway took a massive step towards qualifying for the 2005 UEFA European Women's Championship as they cruised to a 7-2 victory in the first leg of their play-off with Iceland.
Gulbardsen sisters star
Former world, Olympic and European champions, Norway were disappointed to be pipped to automatic qualification by Denmark. But only a nightmare in their home return on Saturday will prevent them competing in England next summer after a dominant performance tonight, sisters Solveig and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen claiming five of the visitors' seven goals in Reykjavik's indoor Egilshollin.
Having admitted her tactic was to "defend in numbers", Iceland coach Helena Ólafsdóttir named a cautious 4-5-1 formation. Her opposite number, Åge Steen, had a full-strength and experienced squad, and it only took three minutes for Norway to break the deadlock as Trine Rønning's bouncing cross was headed in by Solveig Gulbrandsen.
The home side eventually settled, and Erla Hendriksdóttir's curling free-kick was well saved by Bente Nordby. However, just as it seemed Iceland were getting back into the game, they conceded two goals in quick succession.
In the 22nd minute, Rønning sent in yet another incisive ball from the left-hand side of the box and Dagny Mellgren tapped in. Three minutes later Solveig Gulbrandsen spotted Thora Helgadóttir - Nordby's deputy at Kolbotn IL - off her line and lobbed the ball brilliantly into the net from 25 metres.
Iceland now had a tremendous task to stay in the tie, and their deficit increased on 39 minutes as Unni Lehn's shot was blocked by Helgadóttir but Ragnhild Gulbrandsen was on hand to pick up the rebound and calmly shoot into the empty net to join her younger sibling on the scoresheet.
The Norwegian domination continued after the break and early in the half Mellgren rolled a centre past the penalty spot and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen outpaced her marker to sidefoot the ball in.
Just after the hour the athletic Rønning was withdrawn following an impressive performance in favour of Siv Skard. Within six minutes of her introduction Skard had herself made a goal with a cross from the left, Solveig Gulbrandsen connecting to complete her hat-trick.
Iceland on target
Margret Vidarsdóttir then shot just past the far post, and 18 minutes from time Iceland did get a goal back as Ingvild Stenslend deflected Gudlaug Jónsdóttir's effort in following a goalmouth scramble. Seven minutes later it was 6-2 as Vidarsdóttir ran on to Olga Færseth's clever pass and finished confidently.
However, in the in the final minute Ragnhild Gulbrandsen's header was saved by Helgadóttir but bounced in off the luckless Erla Hendriksdóttir. That ensured Norway a comfortable lead for the return in Oslo's Vallhall arena, and only a dramatic result will stop Steen celebrating qualification as he steps down on Saturday after four years in charge.
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