Ibrahimovic's flick like a knife to Italian hearts

Denmark v Sweden: A new golden age
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The Independent Online

Four points apiece for Sweden and Denmark; only two for the Group C favourites, Italy. Scandinavia's impact on Euro 2004 could hardly have been more pronounced had a fleet of Viking long-ships cruised up the River Douro which carves through the heart of this maritime city and sent raiding parties ashore to pillage its precious port cellars.

Four points apiece for Sweden and Denmark; only two for the Group C favourites, Italy. Scandinavia's impact on Euro 2004 could hardly have been more pronounced had a fleet of Viking long-ships cruised up the River Douro which carves through the heart of this maritime city and sent raiding parties ashore to pillage its precious port cellars.

Before their team's game with Italy here on Friday night, Sweden's followers thronged the cafés and bars of the fashionable riverside area. Fuelled by the famous local tipple and, no doubt, substantial quantities of Denmark's best-known contribution to brewing, they teased groups of Italians over the suspension of Francesco Totti by singing "Bye Bye Totti" to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne". After the 1-1 draw in the Estadio Dragao there is a possibility that it could be goodbye Italy, too.

With five minutes remaining, Antonio Cassano's first-half header still separated the sides. The Azzurri, if not quite living up to the promise of an imaginative banner held by their fans, which featured the blue-and-yellow logo of a certain Swedish furniture store and declared "We'll take you apart", looked well placed to progress to the quarter-finals. Had Cassano's goal proved decisive, Italy would have had four points - with a match against the goalless, pointless Bulgarians to come - and been level with Denmark. Sweden, despite their opening five-goal spree, would have been stuck on three entering Tuesday's final group fixtures. Then, however, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a striker of Slavic descent, flicked in the most audacious goal of the tournament so far.

As a result, the scale of any Italian victory in Guimaraes will come into play only if Denmark and Sweden draw 0-0 or 1-1 at Boavista's Estadio Bessa; that is, if they replicate the scorelines in Italy's matches against them. Should the Danes and Swedes finish 2-2, Giovanni Trapattoni's team will make an early exit, just as Italy did in 1996, no matter how heavily they beat Bulgaria. "Will there be a deal between you and Sweden?" a Rome-based reporter asked Denmark's coach, Morten Olsen, after his side's 2-0 win over Bulgaria at Braga. "Yes, of course," he replied, his straight-faced sarcasm making even the Italians see the joke. "We're open to any sort of arrangement."

Italy's best hope - and they will be without their suspended captain, Fabio Cannavaro, as well as the disgraced Totti - lies in the fact that both Nordic countries know three points will guarantee a place in the second phase. And, while Sweden's Southampton midfielder Anders Svensson admitted their rivalry is "less ferocious than, say, England and Scotland or Germany and Holland", being knocked out by the neighbours would take a lot of living down.

"Denmark is a smaller country, so it would probably mean more to their supporters," Svensson said, slightly surprisingly. "Yet both countries are going through a golden period. People seem to think Sweden have just started doing well, but we've played this way for three years and had a good World Cup in 2002. At home, the expectation was that we would at least reach the last eight.

"The perception of Scandinavians was always of hard-working, solid pros. But we've got an awful lot of skilful, technical players coming through. Our current squad has a good mix of types of players. So far we haven't performed as well as we're capable of doing, so we need to pick it up a bit and play for 90 minutes against Denmark like we did the last 20 against Italy."

Jan Molby, who played with Olsen in the "Danish Dynamite" team of 20 years ago, believes that, whatever happens this week, the time has come to acknowledge Denmark and Sweden as forces within the Continental game. "Both have several players in their mid-20s with 40 to 60 caps, and many of them are holding their own with top clubs in Italy, England, France and Germany."

It is outdated, added Molby, to characterise Denmark, Sweden or indeed Norway as reliant on traditional Northern European virtues like physical strength and sound temperament. "They still have that type of player, like the centre-backs Olof Mellberg or Andreas Jakobsson, who are a coach's dream; they never let you down. But they've also got more freedom in their attacking play."

Swedes and Danes are sprinkled liberally around the "Team of the Week" line-ups in Europe's press. Molby, taking time off from his duties as manager of Kidderminster Harriers to work as a summariser for Danish TV in Portugal, cites Denmark's Thomas Sorensen and Martin Laursen plus the unsung Jakobsson and the Ibrahimovic-Henrik Larsson partnership from Sweden. He gives Sweden "an outside chance" of reaching the semi-finals. Denmark? "No one expected us to win the competition in 1992, but we did."

The key to success is the pace and skill of their wingers, with Jesper Gronkjaer, Dennis Rommedahl and Martin Jorgensen all showing up well. Italy, noted Molby, fielded ostensibly the same 4-2-3-1 formation as Denmark when they met. "The difference is that their wide players walk," he said. "Ours run."

Italy displayed greater urgency and cohesion against Sweden. Cassano, 21, may not be Totti's spitting image as a player, but the former urchin from the back streets of Bari provided some of his fellow Romanista's panache. "Italians play only when the knives are at their throats," one of their media entourage declared. The blades are glinting now, and they belong to the Vikings.

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