AUCKLAND – Australian coach Alen Stajcic is wary of “wounded” Norway as the Filipinas battle the European powerhouse on Sunday for a spot in the knockout round at the climax of Group A action in the FIFA Women’s World Cup at Eden Park here.
“I’m wary of the wounded animal. They (Norway) have taken a hit to their pride and I expect them to come out fighting. They are (former World Cup) champions for a reason. They have a fightback in them so we have to be ready for that,” Stajcic said Friday after the team’s workout at Olympic Park.
Earlier tipped as group favorites, the celebrated Grasshoppers are in last place with just a point following their 0-1 setback to the Ferns here last week and a scoreless standoff with Switzerland in Hamilton last Tuesday.
In contrast, the surprising Filipinas are running third with three points following their 1-0 upset of the Ferns in Wellington, acutely aware that a second straight win guarantees them a place in the knockout round-of-16.
The hosts, who also have three points as Stajcic’s charges but are in second place on goal difference, battle the pacesetting Swiss in Dunedin simultaneously, with the winner likewise advancing outright into the knockout stage.
The Aussie mentor remained respectful of their formidable foes, saying: “They are former World Cup winners (in 1995), they are former Olympic gold medalists, the pedigree within the country and women’s football is enormous.
“You have a Ballon d’Or winner in Ada Hegerberg, they have players playing at the highest level at Barcelona, who are probably their best players. They may be ranked No. 12 now but they have been in the top 10 for the past 20 to 30 years. They are fantastic.”
He noted that Hegerberg, who pulled out of the game against Switzerland due to a groin injury, could be back in harness “because she’s a champion and she has earned the right to be a champion. You don’t get to be a Player of the Year Award unless you are an amazing footballer.
“We have an immense amount of respect for her and the team. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
He wouldn’t sell his own players short, though, underscoring the fact that “it is unbelievable to think that we are in this position. Any neutral person around the world would have not put any money on us to be in this position.
“To be ahead of Norway in the league table after two matches is almost unheard of from any neutral pundit. We have earned the right to be in that position so that gives me a lot of belief and confidence.
“They (the Filipinas) have earned the right to feel like that, in this position to feel confident and that they can put points on the board.”
The Philippines was an overwhelming group underdog until the stunning win over New Zealand, throwing the race for the two round-of-16 slots wide open until the last day of group play.
Stajic was generally satisfied with the squad’s workout, noting that “the team is in good spirits. Everyone is focused and ready for the challenge that lies ahead.”
Together for the last 18 months, “one of the strengths of this team is that we are able to refocus so quickly. And there is a real sense of maturity around this team and around that process that is one of the strengths of this team,” according to the coach.
Given how the group has played out, Stajcic observed that all four squads would be feeling pressure entering Sunday’s matches.
‘Yes there’s pressure but if you don’t like pressure then you should be playing in elite sport. It doesn’t always happen in the World Cup, but this is one of those groups when all four teams can go through the next round,” he explained.
“All four teams need a result. Switzerland is on top but they can also lose their spot in the next round and Norway is in the bottom. If any team wins they are through. It is a really unique group that shows that it is tight and tough,” he stressed.
“Since the pressure will be on everyone, we will have to be ready for battle. It will be equal.”
Caption: Coach Alen Stajcic shares his thoughts after the Filipinas’ workout at Olympic Park in Auckland.