SOUTHAMPTON, England: Northern Ireland were outclassed in their major tournament debut as Norway earned a comprehensive 4-1 victory in their group-stage opener at the women’s European Championship.
First-half finishes from Julie Blakstad and Frida Maanum, plus a penalty by Caroline Graham Hansen, put the two-time European champions on course for a routine win to dampen the occasion for their opponents.
Defender Julie Nelson — Northern Ireland’s most-capped female player — gave the competition’s lowest-ranked nation brief hope of an unlikely comeback by heading in a landmark goal just after the interval.
But Guro Reiten’s free kick sealed the win for Martin Sjogren’s side to move it level on three points with host England at the top of Group A.
A difficult evening for Kenny Shiels’ team was compounded by forward Simone Magill leaving the field in tears late on with an injury.
Following Wednesday’s record-breaking Old Trafford attendance of 68,871 for the championship opener, a more modest crowd of 9,146 turned out in the sunshine at St. Mary’s, with a sizeable contingent from each nation.
Blakstad, a Manchester City midfielder, scored the 10th-minute opener by beating goalkeeper Jackie Burns at her near post with a low, left-footed drive after right-back Abbie Magee was caught well out of position.
Maanum swiftly doubled the advantage after she dispossessed Chloe McCarron just outside the Northern Ireland 18-yard box following a poorly executed goal kick and was then left with a simple finish into an unguarded net after receiving the ball back from the unselfish Ada Hegerberg.
While Shiels’ team showed spurts of enterprise on the break, the one-way traffic continued.
Northern Ireland were regularly being carved open and once again contributed to its own downfall as the game was effectively decided in the 31st minute.
VAR intervened after Nadene Caldwell inexplicably handled the ball in her own box following an inswinging corner, allowing Hansen to confidently dispatch the resultant spot kick beyond the fingertips of the diving Burns.
Shiels, whose squad contains 13 part-time players, responded to a difficult opening period by bringing on veteran captain Marissa Callaghan for her first appearance since suffering a toe injury in May.
The alteration helped spark an immediate response.
Rachel Furness smashed the ball back across the box after Norway made a mess of clearing a corner and 37-year-old center-back Nelson nodded over the line, despite the best efforts of keeper Guro Pettersen.
But thoughts of an improbable fightback were quickly extinguished as Reiten restored the three-goal advantage by catching out Burns with a low, 20-yard free-kick.
Northern Ireland will look to bounce back on Monday against Austria, while Norway play England in Brighton.