Soft touches skirt the 'killer zone'

The Rivals: England beware
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The Independent Football

Even the most one-eyed of football fans would be hard-pushed to construct a sentence containing the words "Sweden" and "pushover" and make it sound in any way positive for England's World Cup prospects. Sweden's footballers are no pushovers for anyone, and no one is more acutely aware of that than the man who must prepare England for their first match in next year's World Cup finals in Japan. Sven Goran Eriksson has already had a taste of the threat posed by his countrymen when they held England to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in a competitive friendly match only three weeks ago.

At the time, England's first foreign coach observed that it was "nice to play against my own country", but that was a friendly; next time it will be down to real business – "nice" will not come into it. That is not a word that figures highly in the Swedish football vocabulary. As a team they specialise in making life as unpleasant as possible for their opponents, as Eriksson noted after the Old Trafford game, in which England benefited from a dubious penalty. "You take two or three touches on the ball and there are three yellow shirts around you," he observed.

It is that hard-working team ethic that enables Sweden to figure much more prominently than might be expected. Their catalogue of achievements over the years is quite impressive: they finished fourth in the World Cup in 1938, reached the final group in 1950, and were beaten in the 1958 final at home in Stockholm by a Brazil team inspired by Pele. In more modern times, they were third at USA94, two years after reaching the semi-finals of the European Championship.

Sweden, like England, who have not beaten them since 1968, were group winners in qualifying, dominating a section with an eastern bent. They did not face any of Europe's powers, but the runners-up, Turkey, breezed through the play-offs, and the Swedes made only two slips, drawing at home against the Turks and drawing in Slovakia. A record of eight wins and two draws with a goal difference of 20-3 is impressive in anybody's language.

The star of the show is well known here: Henrik Larsson has been the spearhead of Celtic's return to dominance in Scotland, rattling in a league-record 35 goals in 37 appearances as they surged to the title last season. But Sweden are the antithesis of a one-man team; they even have two coaches in Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg. Two leaders but one aim, a unified team producing consistently strong, if unspectacular, performances.

Magnus Hedman, in goal, and Hakan Mild play in England, with Coventry and Wimbledon, while Patrik Andersson, the mainstay of their defence, has been highly successful with Bayern Munich, but most play at home. However, their most exciting newcomer, the 19-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, became Sweden's most expensive footballer when joining Ajax.

There will be no let-up for England, with Argentina next on the agenda. The contrast with Sweden could hardly be more marked. The familiar pale-blue-and-white stripes are worn these days by some of the world's best. The fact that a striker of Gabriel Batistuta's ability cannot be sure of his place in the starting line-up gives an idea of the quality of the side that Manchester United's Juan Sebastian Veron drives forward from midfield.

South American qualifying, one massive group, was a marathon, but Argentina were sure of their place in the Far East long before the finish. Given that they have also replaced Brazil as purveyors of the beautiful game, it is no wonder they are favourites to lift the trophy. Colombia's coach, Francisco Maturana, put the task of taking them on into perspective when he said during qualifying: "It is hell playing against Argentina." Who would not want the problems of their coach, Marcelo Bielsa, who must pick a team from a squad that, apart from Veron and Batistuta, includes Crespo, Gonzalez, Samuel, Gallardo, Ayala, Zanetti, Ortega and Sorin?

England will be hoping that the spirit of the final opponents, Nigeria, has already been broken before they meet. Not only are they arguably the strongest team in Africa, they also have to make up for the disappointments of France98. Their coach, Shaibu Amodu, sighed at the prospect of playing in a group he called "the killer zone". Apart from the performances of Chelsea's Celestine Babayaro and the Arsenal striker Nwankwo Kanu, Nigeria's prospects may very well hinge on the ability of their talismanic striker Victor Agali to provide a tangible return for the efforts of a squad that still contain the veterans Sunday Oliseh, Jay Jay Okocha and Ipswich's Finidi George.

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