Hungary qualify for Euro 2016 with playoff win over Norway
A corner, a glancing header, a deflection, a desperate sprawl form the goalkeeper. A moment as the crowd tried to work out what had happened and then ecstasy. Hungary finished the two-leg playoff with a 3-1 aggregate win and passage to Euro 2016 secured -- a first appearance at a major tournament for 30 years. Gabor Kiraly, in his trademark baggy grey tracksuit bottoms ran the length of the field to join the celebrations. Everywhere, but for one small corner of the ground, the red white and green flag of Hungary waved.
Markus Henriksen pulled one back for Norway, but it was too late. Much of the anxiety had been taken out of the game for Hungary, leading 1-0 from the first leg, by Tamas Priskin's brilliant 14th-minute opener. Henriksen's own goal, turning a Daniel Bode header into his own net, had been the confirmation. The source rather rubbed it in: it was just Hungary's fourth corner of the game; Norway had had nine to go with 16 in the first leg. The away side, though, for all its control of possession, simply hadn't done enough with it.
Norway's high line had already threatened to cause problems on a couple of occasions when with 14 minutes played, Priskin ran on to a Through-ball from Tamas Kadar, outpaced Vegard Forren (a bewildering sight to anybody familiar with his dogged but largely lumbering career), checked and, with a pass inside the obvious option, whipped a finish into the top corner from 20 yards. It was his first goal for his country in 17 months.
The only goal in the first leg had come from a debutant in Laszlo Kleinheisler; this was one for the veterans. Priskin is only 29 but, on his 11th club, he feels far older than that. He has been a stalwart of the Hungary national side for a decade; this was his 54th appearance for his country and, by some way, the most important of his 17 goals.
As in the first leg, Norway had plenty of the ball but made less use of it than it had in Oslo. Martin Odegaard may turn out to be a top-class footballer, but to expect a 16 year old, even one who plays for Real Madrid, to operate as the playmaker in a game of this magnitude is a huge ask. It was no great surprise when he was withdrawn at half-time.
There were corners, free-kicks and plenty of crosses but little penetration. Kiraly had to be quick off his line to block from Haitam Aleesami after a loose ball had broken to him in the box and then, finally, in the last minute of the first half, there came a chance from a corner. Even Hovland rose at the back post but his downward header hit the post and bounced to safety.
The lack of pace at the heart of the Norwegian defense allied to its high line, meanwhile, meant it was always vulnerable to balls played in behind it, even if that did result in almost comically slow races between Priskin and Forren. Four minutes before half-time the lively Kleinheisler -- who plays in the Hungarian third division because of a contract dispute with his club, but is reputedly the prime minister Victor Orban's favourite player -- played in Priskin once more. Again he chose to go it alone with Balazs Dzsudzsak unmarked in the centre, but this time his touch let him down and his shot was blocked.
A double change at half-time said much about Norway's desperation, and it was rewarded early in the second half with a string of free-kicks in dangerous areas. But Hungary continued to look dangerous on the break. Dzsudzsak, cutting in from the right, became the main source of danger. He had a shot deflect off Aleesami and hit the bar and then, with a crisp shot form the edge of the box, drew a fine one-handed save form Orjan Nyland.
Hungary had begun the second half nervously, as though counting off the second, but as time went by, it grew almost visibly more confident. Certainly the crowd grew audibly more confident, becoming ever more boisterous as the evening wore on and further corners were cleared. Norway had 65% of possession but were remarkably short of spark. Inevitably, though, with that much of the ball, a chance was going to fall for it and sure enough it arrived with 14 minutes to go, Alex Tettey's shot being deflected into the path of Marcus Pedersen. Kiraly was off his line quickly again, though, and the shot was blocked.
That was the last moment at which it seemed Norway may have a chance. By the end, Hungary was simply waiting for the whistle of an eruption of glee. This may not be a Hungary side to match the great sides of the fifties, or even the very good sides of the seventies and eighties, but it is at a major tournament and for now, that's all that counts.