(EDEN PARK, Auckland)
7 p.m. – Norway vs Philippines (3 p.m. Manila time)
AUCKLAND, New Zealand– Norway’s top striker won’t be suiting up against the Philippines when the two teams collide in an all-important Group A match Sunday at the Eden Park.
Hege Riise, coach of the team known as the Grasshoppers, made the revelation during a pre-match press conference Saturday.
Ada Hegerberg, winner of the 2018 Ballon d’Or Feminin trophy, won’t be match-ready owing to an injury, according to Riise.
Rated No. 12 in the world, the Norwegians have yet to win a match after suffering a 1-0 loss to New Zealand. Against Switzerland, Norway was held to a scoreless draw with the 28-year-old Hegerberg heading back to the dugout due to injury.
“She is not ready for this game. It came too early for her injury, so she is still working to be prepared for the next game,” Riise said.
Still, Norway swears they “are prepared for the Philippines.”
“After observing their performance in these two games they have played and how they scored goals, our focus is primarily on how we can win and on analyzing what we need to take care of and prepare for,” Riise said.
Hegerberg, a six-time UEF Women’s Champions League winner for Division 1 Feminine side Lyon, has so far scored 42 goals in 73 games for the national squad.
Filipinas head coach Alen Stajcic is unfazed, saying they treat every game seriously regardless of the opponent.
“We treat the game the same. I don’t care if we are playing Norway, I don’t care if we are playing America, I don’t care if we are playing Myanmar or Hong Kong. We’ve got so many different challenges in the last 18 months,” Stajcic said.
“Every single game is the same preparation. It’s not relevant whether we are playing life or death tomorrow or Norway or anyone or we need to win or we need to draw. We go out and win every game.”
“Obviously we are looking forward to the game (against Norway). It’s a massive game, a massive occasion for us. Playing at a special sporting ground like Eden Park, a hallowed turf,” noted Stajcic at the pre-match conference Friday of playing at the fabled arena.
“From a team perspective, we are all very excited. And looking forward to the game tomorrow,” he added of the venue familiar to rugby and cricket fans worldwide, and where his charges are eager to break new ground further in the world’s greatest football tournament for women.
As before, the Australian tactician declined to get carried away by the moment and only had one thing on his mind when the two teams tangle at 7 p.m. (3 p.m. Manila time).
The match will coincide simultaneously with an equally vital clash in Dunedin between host New Zealand and Switzerland, with the winner likewise sealing a spot in the treacherous round-of-16.
“We go out to win every game,” he stressed.
Ace defender Jessika Cowart, who joined Stajcic at the briefing, also appreciated the importance of the meeting against a side ranked No. 12 in the world, 34 rungs higher than the Filipinas, but was undaunted by their favored rivals.
“It’s football, there is 11 of us and 11 of them. There is a ball and we want to score and we want to keep them out of our net,” said Cowart of the bottom line.
“Of course, there are other factors like the world stage, the players we are playing against. That’s all added pressure, but it’s what you make it. How you perceive it. We are going out there as hard as we can, fight with pride, puso (heart),” she stressed.
“We will play the game we love and we know and that’s all that matters.”
At the prospect of defending against Norwegian star forward and Caroline Hansen, she replied: “I am excited to play football, so whether it is up against Caroline Graham Hansen or someone from Woodside, California, I’m excited.”
“And so, it makes no difference to me whoever comes down from the field.”
Stajcic reiterated the significance of their surprise status of remaining in contention when virtually everyone else considered them out of the running by the time they played their third game.
“From a coaching perspective I am really proud of the whole group that we got to this point in this tournament,” he pointed out.
“We are still alive. No one thought we would be alive and we were everyone’s underdogs.”
“(But now) we are going up against a super power of women’s football, historically, and knowing that we have a chance of progressing into the next round.”
Focused more on his team’s preparations, the Aussie coach declined to comment on Norway’s reported internal issues, saying: “I have a lot of respect of respect for them as a country and what they have given to the world game.
“I am sure tomorrow when they come out here, they are going to fight for their country like they always have for the last 30 years. They are champions historically for their clubs and their country so we have a lot of respect for them. That is how we will be treating them.”
Besides the match, both coach and player looked forward to the Filipino fans who are expected to come to Eden Park in droves to provide them with a huge and much-needed inspirational boost.
“We can’t just wait to come out here tomorrow and perform for them one more time and show them the true spirit of our team and perform for them on a world stage, it is just wonderful to see and it is really what is special about our team and about the World Cup,” Stajcic said.
“It is amazing to have them. They bring that type of home game feeling every time we set out on the pitch and are really grateful for it,” Cowart echoed.