A sunny St Mary’s hosted the first of its three group A games as Norway and Northern Ireland battled it out, with favourites Norway turning on the style to take their first three points of the tournament.
For Kenny Shiels’ Northern Ireland, stepping out at St Mary’s was a momentous occasion in itself - this being the first time the side have ever reached a major international tournament. On the other hand, an experienced Norway side, boosted by the return of the first ever Women’s Ballon D’or winner Ada Hegerberg, would have come into the fixture looking to make a statement of intent.
Three goals and three different goalscorers ahead of half-time put Norway in the driving seat, with Julia Blakstad, Frida Maanum and Caroline Graham Hansen all getting off the mark.
Northern Ireland came out fighting in the second half, and shocked Norway by scoring their first goal of the tournament in the opening minutes after half-time. Quick to respond however, Guro Reiten slotted a free-kick into the bottom corner to take the tie beyond doubt.
A jubilant crowd of 9,146 fans greeted the two sides as they stepped out onto the turf at St Mary's, with UEFA Women's EURO 2022 flags and banners flown by local girls football teams as the national anthems were sung.Norway got the game underway, and after a few cagey minutes for both sides, it was their star forward Hegerberg with the first chance of the game. A drive down the wing and well-placed delivery saw Norway’s number 14 race through on goal, only to see her shot charged down.FC Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen was the next to cause the Northern Irish defence problems, weaving her way through a number of players before firing a shot on goal.However, it was Julia Blakstad that opened the scoring for favourites Norway - a through ball seeing the Manchester City star in space on the left-hand side - allowing her to coolly slot into the bottom of the net.Rachel Furness attempted to level the terms shortly after from range, but her shot did nothing to trouble Guru Petterson in the Norway goal.Norway made their possession dominance count, doubling the deficit when Northern Ireland’s attempt to play out from the back was pressed ruthlessly, resulting in a three-on-two. With an extra body in the box, it was a simple enough finish for Frida Maanum, as the ball was slotted neatly to her feet directly in front of goal.Martin Sjören’s side nearly made it three as the clock ticked into the 24th minute. Dangerwoman Ada Hegerberg was left in acres of space at the back post to head goalward, but her shot lanced wide, much to the consternation of the large Norwegian fan contingent.VAR was called into action just before the 30 minute mark at St Mary’s, as Nadene Caldwell handled the ball inside the box. Graham Hansen stepped up to the spot, and despite Jacqueline Burns getting fingertips to the ball, the back of the net still bulged to make it 3-0 which is how it stayed going into half-time.Half-time: Norway 3-0 Northern IrelandNorthern Ireland shocked Norway just minutes into the second half, as a whipped corner wasn’t dealt with and a headed back across goal allowed Julie Nelson to nod home, making history for her side in its first major tournament.The goal, and the roar from all the green shirts covering the red seats of St Mary’s, spurred on the side, and despite trailing 3-1, it was clear that they were up for the fight in the second half.
Unfortunately, that fighting attitude gifted Norway an opportunity to pull further away, as a wrenching down of a red shirt saw a free-kick right on the edge of the box. Guro Reiten stroked the free-kick past the wall and hard into the bottom corner, regaining the three goal cushion.Despite Northern Ireland continuing to grow in the second half, playing more creative free-flowing football when in possession, Norway continued to show their dominance on the ball.Some slick play from the Norwegians in the 68th minute saw the ball in the back of the net once again, only to have it disallowed by the rising flag of the assistant referee.
A tiring Northern Ireland continued to send searching balls forward, but with Norway content to hold the ball and play around the back, the opportunities for Kenny Shiels' side were few and far between.
A 90th minute marauding run by Hegerberg looked like it would rub salt in the wounds as she outpaced both centre-backs, but a wayward touch gave Northern Ireland the opportunity to clear their lines and recover.
Full-time: Norway 4-1 Northern Ireland
A deserved victory for the dominant Norway side, but a spirited performance from Kenny Shiels' Northern Ireland, making their debut in a major international tournament.
Northern Ireland play their remaining group A fixtures at St Mary's, welcoming Austria on Monday 11th July and then taking on England in front of a sold-out crowd on Friday 15th July.