Allback aims for payback after series of setbacks

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Marcus Allback recoils like a man who has discovered a slug in his smorgasbord. "Horrible, yugh," the Aston Villa striker says with a shudder, as if describing a gruesome injury or imagining he has just missed the penalty that would have won Euro 2004 for Sweden.

Marcus Allback recoils like a man who has discovered a slug in his smorgasbord. "Horrible, yugh," the Aston Villa striker says with a shudder, as if describing a gruesome injury or imagining he has just missed the penalty that would have won Euro 2004 for Sweden.

In fact, Allback is recalling an episode during his stag weekend last summer. He was in his native Gothenberg to marry his long-time partner, Suzanne, and his friends were not going to let the occasion pass without some time-honoured ritual embarrassment.

To cut a long story short, they had Allback, who is renowned there as an avid fan of the Orgryte club, dressed in the strip of their more famous neighbours, IFK Gothenberg. Not in some dimly lit bar, but in the glare of the noonday sun, selling ice creams at the city's marathon and handing drinks to the runners. All caught on camera by both press and TV.

The 30-year-old Allback, who emulated his father by playing for Orgryte before moves to Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and the West Midlands, will be less bashful when it comes to donning Sweden's yellow and blue. A starting role in their opening Group C match against Bulgaria in Lisbon on Monday night would compensate amply for the frustrations he has endured over the past two years.

They began when he arrived at Villa Park from the Dutch club Heerenveen for £2m following a successful World Cup for himself and the Swedes. The manager who bought him, Graham Taylor, seemed strangely reluctant to play him. When he did get a run, his four goals in the last five games effectively preserved Villa's top-flight status.

The stage was set for Allback to establish himself under David O'Leary. On the opening day of 2003-04 he started where he left off, heading into Portsmouth's net. "It looked a perfectly good goal but it was disallowed for pushing by Alpay," he says, grinning through gritted teeth at the memory of the macho Turk. "I threatened him afterwards!"

He then joined the Sweden squad for a midweek match against Greece. "I picked up the first of two hamstring injuries while I was there. I got fit again and started twice for Villa, didn't score and was dropped. I also needed a groin operation and got a nasty virus that kept me out for five games and spoiled Christmas. I'd been fortunate never to have any major injuries. Last season it felt like I had all my bad luck at one go."

Just as well that Allback, or Setback as he might have been renamed, is a relentlessly effervescent character. "I try not to dwell on the down side of anything. I get that from my dad, the most positive person on the planet. I thank him for the ability to keep things in perspective. I'm looking at last season from the point of view of feeling fresh now, whereas I could have been worn out from playing 50-odd games."

All the same, there can be few players, if any, coming into these finals with as little competitive action behind them as Allback. In two campaigns at Villa, he has played 90 minutes in the Premiership just eight times. The nature of friendly internationals, with substitutes being used liberally, means he has not been able to hone his sharpness with Sweden either. Yet he pronounces himself "absolutely fine fitness-wise".

Sweden's joint coaches, Tommy Soderberg and Lars Lagerback, clearly believe in Allback. He is a selfless team player whose record of 19 goals in 39 internationals - a better ratio than Michael Owen or Thierry Henry - suggests their faith is justified. "When I've been fit and wasn't getting picked for Villa, I still played all Sweden's games."

Even Henrik Larsson's decision to rescind his international retirement did not disturb his equilibrium. "In 90 per cent of my games for Sweden, I've played with Henrik rather than it being a choice being between us. We had various combinations during the build-up so we'll have to see what happens now the real thing's almost here. All I can do is show that I'm fit enough, good enough and want to play."

Sweden have an image of being long on strength and organisation, if short of flair, which Allback is disinclined to dispute. Bulgaria may prove exactly the opposite; Italy will have volcanic talent and temperaments; Denmark should have similar Scandinavian attributes to the Swedes.

"Our 'derby' with the Danes will be like England v Scotland and it could be the decider because we play them last," says Allback. "There was lots of stick flying about at Villa between my fellow Swede Olof Mellberg and me and our keeper, Thomas Sorensen, who plays for them.

"We have three first-round games. Three good days and you're through. Then, absolutely anything can happen. Look at us in the last World Cup when we drew with England and edged out Argentina in the so-called group of death. We could easily have reached the last eight - we hit the post against Senegal, and when they counter-attacked, they hit the post and it went in for a golden-goal winner.

"We've still got most of that team. That kind of stability is comforting. The sides that do well in big championships are normally those that have players who have been there before. Experience is so important."

That said, Allback is expecting great things at Euro 2004 not only from seasoned performers like Mellberg, Anders Svensson and Freddie Ljungberg, but also from Sweden's emerging tiros. He nominates two in particular to excel: the Rennes midfielder Kim Kallstrom, 21 ("he has these massive legs and lovely, mature passing ability"), and the enigmatic Ajax forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 22 ("Southern European dribbling skill... he does things with a ball I've never seen anyone else do").

France are his choice as European champions. For Sweden, reaching the quarter-finals and then "seeing where it takes us, remembering that we came third in the 1994 World Cup", would represent "a good summer" for Allback. That, and not having to wear the horrible hues of the IFK kit.