Football: Swedes on course in defeat

Steve Tongue says that Ireland's victory is of little comfort to England
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The Independent Online
IT IS eight years and two European Championships since Graham Taylor, unaware that the headline "Swedes 2 Turnips 1" was about to be committed to print, emerged from a shell-shocked England dressing-room in Stockholm to get his retaliation in first. Sweden, he said, in knocking his team out of the 1992 finals, had played in a style more English than England.

Swedish players have continued to emulate the British to good effect, developing qualities of solidity, athleticism and temperamental reliability that make Scandinavians a safer, if duller, option than Latins for clubs seeking foreign imports.

A low-key 2-0 defeat against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on Wednesday, with each team missing four or five regulars, could not disguise the fact that Jack - or Jonas - is now as good as his master. England's failure to manage any Swede-bashing since Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters and Roger Hunt scored at Wembley in 1968 is evidence of that, as is the current Group Five table: since Glenn Hoddle, like Taylor, suffered a 2-1 loss in Stockholm, followed by withering headlines and a lack of public confidence that ended with the sack, Sweden have established a five-point lead ahead of their next encounter, at Wembley on 5 June.

They have done so with a team carefully remodelled by Tommy Soderberg, who replaced Tommy Svensson following a narrow failure to qualify for last year's World Cup finals. Even though the goalkeeper, Thomas Ravelli, together with Roland Nilsson, Tomas Brolin, Jonas Thern, Anders Limpar and Martin Dahlin have gone, a number of the 1994 World Cup semi-finalists, such as Stefan Schwarz, the defenders Joachim Bjorklund and Patrik Andersson, and striker Kennet Andersson remain.

Admiration for them all is widespread: of the 11 who started in Dublin, only IFK Gothenburg's midfielder Hakan Mild is not based abroad. The back-four was drawn from England (Leicester's Pontus Kaamark), Germany, Spain and Italy, while Celtic have been splendidly rewarded for their investment in Henrik Larsson, Scotland's player of the year and the scorer of 38 goals.

If there is a tactical fault, Johnny Ekstrom, the former international striker doing duty for Swedish Radio in Dublin, believes it to be a lack of natural wide players, something borne out by Jesper Blomqvist's tendency on Wednesday to drift inside. "We have no fliers on the left or right, we play too much in the centre," Ekstrom said. "And Henrik Larsson is good guy and a good player but in Scotland you have only two teams, and they have big problems playing in European cups."

As Soderberg is one of the few Scandinavians in the world not to speak near-perfect English, his assistant Lars Lagerback tends to do the talking, which he did after Wednesday's game with unfailing patience and courtesy. The gist was that, even in defeat, Sweden had got what they wanted from the evening. "It was a perfect game for us to play, as Ireland are well organised and run hard all the time.

The way in which Graham Kavanagh and Kevin Kilbane from the Nationwide League and a 36-year-old Tony Cascarino opened up the defence late in the game should encourage England without deluding them. As Ekstrom says: "It'll be a tough game at Wembley, but Sweden can lose that and still go to the European finals. A draw would be a good result."

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