The Larsson effect: Talisman's U-turn bolsters belief

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The Independent Online

England may have snapped up the site of Celtic's 1967 European Cup success as their training ground for Euro 2004, but the beachfront outside Lisbon where Jock Stein and his players prepared 37 years ago is where Sweden are hoping to summon similar inspiration.

England may have snapped up the site of Celtic's 1967 European Cup success as their training ground for Euro 2004, but the beachfront outside Lisbon where Jock Stein and his players prepared 37 years ago is where Sweden are hoping to summon similar inspiration.

There could be no better place than Estoril for Johan Mjallby and Henrik Larsson. The Parkhead friends know all about the city where their predecessors became the first British side to embrace club football's biggest prize. "Those players are still heroes to the Celtic fans," said Mjallby. "Everyone who joins the club, even foreigners like us, we get to know about the Lisbon Lions."

There could be no more fitting place for the Group C meeting between Sweden and Bulgaria tomorrow. There will be plenty of green-and-white hoops in the stands as fans of the Scottish champions turn up to watch the Swedish pair encounter a side captained by their midfielder Stilian Petrov.

The contest may be in the Alvalade Stadium instead of the Estadio Nacional - stolen by Sven - where Celtic triumphed over Internazionale, but Sweden have an unshakeable belief that they can upset another much-vaunted side from Italy, as well as their neighbours Denmark, and qualify from a group where no one gives them a prayer.

The source of that belief is summed up in one word: Larsson. The 32-year-old striker retired from international football football just minutes after his team saw the prospect of a place in the last eight in the 2002 World Cup snatched away by an extra-time winner from Senegal. As soon as Sweden qualified for Euro 2004, the nation launched a campaign to get Larsson back. Over 80,000 signed a petition, and the former Uefa president Lennart Johansson wrote a personal plea. It worked. Last month, Larsson announced he would pull on a yellow shirt once more.

"The boys all wanted Henrik back," insisted Mjallby. "Even the fringe players want us to have the best chance of doing well, and there's no doubt we have a better chance of doing that if Henrik is in the team." Mjallby might be biased, given that he and Larsson have shared so much at Celtic for the last six years, but there is little doubt that the Larsson effect is just as visible for his country.

"I am happy he's back," said Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Ajax striker who will partner Larsson. "He is not too old. Henrik has great experience of playing in Uefa Cup finals, World Cups, European Championships, Champions' League - and he has scored in them all. Give him 10 chances and he will score nine times."

Mjallby saw the remarkable devotion that Larsson inspired among the fans at Celtic, but he says that the real mark of the man is in the dressing room. "He was such a popular guy in the dressing room, a great guy, which is why the other players like him. But we also respect him because he does not act like a star - he works harder than any of us. When I first came to Celtic, Henrik was brilliant to me. That is why his leaving feels like losing a friend more than a team-mate."

Larsson's U-turn has given the joint coaches, Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg, a greater cutting edge to add to their stubborn defence than they would have had with Aston Villa's Marcus Allback. "For me, the strange thing is that Henrik is still improving as a player, even now when he is nearly 33," said Lagerback on Thursday. "I could see it on the training pitch today, he was very clever. Henrik is learning all the time, but he is also a great influence on the squad and the morale of the players. His return is a very positive factor for us."

Larsson's prolific marksmanship at Celtic is continually devalued by critics, but this is a man whose goal a decade ago clinched third place for Sweden at the 1994 World Cup. His return from a broken leg to play in Euro 2000 was remarkable enough, never mind the audacious finish he then supplied against Italy; and three goals in the 2002 World Cup finals underline his pedigree.

Mjallby, though, is not jealous of the fact that 60,000 Celtic fans turned to pay tribute - literally, with the striker netting £1m - to Larsson in an emotional farewell a fortnight ago. "I am not that type of player, but Henrik deserved it all," said the defender, whose last two seasons have been blighted by injury but who will win his 50th cap against Bulgaria.

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