At opposite ends of their early UEFA Nations League table, group leaders Norway welcome last-placed Slovenia to Oslo on Thursday night.
While the Norwegians posted a second successive League B Group 4 win by beating their Nordic neighbours Sweden on Sunday, the visitors remain without a point after a crushing defeat in Belgrade.
Sitting proudly atop their Nations League group with two wins out of two, Norway have already accrued six points before taking to the field at Ullevaal Stadion for the first home game of their 2022-23 campaign.
The latest victims in a promising run for Staale Solbakken’s young side were regional rivals Sweden, who Norway had beaten only 24 times in 109 previous attempts, and they have now won four games on the spin following victory in Stockholm last weekend.
Since failing to qualify for this winter’s World Cup, the Lions enjoyed back-to-back friendly wins in the spring, before turning over Serbia last week, with a rather fortuitous 1-0 victory at the ‘Marakana’.
On that occasion – as against Sweden, when he netted in either half of a 2-1 win – Norway called upon the predatory talents of young striker Erling Haaland, who has now scored 40 times in just 37 appearances for club and country since the start of last season.
After putting his team ahead from the penalty spot, following a debatable decision by the officials, Haaland doubled their lead after the interval, and with the Manchester City-bound star seemingly in no mood to rest up this summer, Norway may be targeting unprecedented Nations League success.
Having finished third in their World Cup qualifying group, the Norwegians still await a return to the finals for the first time since 1998, but after claiming second spot in their 2020-21 Nations League section – a commendable result at League B level – Solbakken’s current crop are now perfectly placed to take a grip on the leadership of Group 4.
By contrast with their upwardly mobile hosts, Slovenia have struggled somewhat over the past year, and their only wins during that time have come against international minnows Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus.
Matjaz Kek’s men missed out on qualification for the World Cup too; failing to secure even a shot at the playoffs due to a fourth-place finish in their group behind Croatia, Russia and Slovakia.
Now, in their first attempt at the Nations League’s second tier, Slovenia have suffered consecutive losses to start this summer’s get-together, after collapsing in the second half of their clash with Serbia on Sunday.
Despite pulling level through Petar Stojanovic’s equalising goal on the half-hour mark, Kek saw his side concede three times after the break, and they now lie at the foot of the Group 4 table, with no points on the board and six goals against.
Featuring at League B level was always going to be a challenge for a team that beat Greece to promotion back in 2020, by going unbeaten throughout six group games, but after losing both at the weekend and to Sweden at home in Ljubljana, relegation could already be on the cards.
Staale Solbakken may be loath to make too many changes to a winning team on Thursday, but given the quick turnaround between fixtures in this packed international period, Norway’s starting XI may look a little different for their most straightforward game on paper.
Both Joshua King and Jens Petter Hauge will be attempting to break into the hosts’ front three, while Mohamed Elyounoussi or Alexander Sorloth could miss out.
At the weekend, Erling Haaland took his international goals tally to 18 in just 19 games – only two behind King’s leading tally for active players – and should start as the focal point of the trio.
With Brentford defender Kristoffer Ajer absent from the squad, Brighton’s Leo Ostigard – who finished last season on loan at Genoa – should again partner a colleague who recently beat him to Serie A survival at club level, Salernitana centre-back Stefan Strandberg.
Meanwhile, Slovenia dropped regular forward Andraz Sporar at the weekend – preferring RB Salzburg’s Benjamin Sesko and Miha Zajc instead – but the former Middlesbrough loanee may be drafted back in from the start.
Despite a negative result in Belgrade, the visitors are likely to stick with a back five, featuring Sunday’s goalscorer Petar Stojanovic at right-back. Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak captains the side from his position as the last line of defence.
Norway possible starting lineup:
Nyland; Ryerson, Strandberg, Ostigard, Meling; Thorsby, Berge, Odegaard; Hauge, Haaland, King
Slovenia possible starting lineup:
Oblak; Stojanovic, Mevlja, Bijol, Blazic, Sikosek; Crnigoj, Kurtic, Zajc; Sesko, Sporar