For anyone tuning into the World Cup and wondering why Italy and the Netherlands aren’t there, the simple answer is that neither could overcome Sweden. Janne Andersson’s side came through a qualifying group with France and the Netherlands to reach the play-offs where they knocked out Italy with a stubborn 1-0 win over 180 minutes in Gothenburg and Rome. Sweden navigated a particularly treacherous road to Russia.
But dig a little deeper and some cracks are revealed. Sweden have won only once in eight matches since thrashing Luxembourg 8-0 last October, and most concerning in that run was a goal tally of just three. They created only two shots on target in June’s warm-up friendlies against Denmark and Peru, both of which ended in goalless draws.
Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of losing a leader like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as the team naturally recalibrates from flamboyant individualism to collective cohesion. They are unlikely to replicate the glutinous goalscoring of Sweden at USA 94, the most recent of Sweden’s four semi-final appearances, but their top scorer that summer in America, Kennet Andersson, says he recognises similarities in the spirit of the current side.
“I think they have the same strength as we had that time, because it’s a real team mentality,” Andersson tells The Independent, who scored five goals in 1994 as Sweden finished third. “You can see that every player works well together and works hard for each other, and they have a solid defence as well, so that’s very important.
“The little problem is scoring, but we have the strikers and I think we’re going to see that in the World Cup.”
In a sturdy 4-4-2 it is Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen who are tasked with getting goals. Berg scored eight in qualifying but there are doubts over the 31-year-old after he spent this season at UAE Premier League side Al-Ain, not a division teeming with international defenders (though he finished the season as top scorer with 21 goals in 21 games). The former Sunderland forward Toivonen is also 31, lacks pace, and lacks form too having spent most of the season on Toulouse’s bench.
The lack of a focal point in attack heaves Swedish expectation upon their maverick midfield talent, Emil Forsberg. The RB Leipzig winger is a fleet-footed gnat of a footballer who buzzes through narrow gaps and carries high nuisance factor. He recorded the most assists in the 2016-17 Bundesliga with an impressive 21 – eight more than the next player, Thomas Muller, although this campaign has been hampered by injury.
“Emil Forsberg is our No1 player,” says Andersson. “He’s fantastic to watch and he’s going to be a very important player for us. But I also think that Marcus Berg is going to be important too. I think he is going to score one or two times in Russia.”
Speaking on Sunday ahead of Sweden’s Group F opener against South Korea in Nizhny Novgorod on Monday, the captain Andreas Granqvist talked up the team’s mental strength. ”We’ve worked a lot with our sports psychology advisor Daniel Ekwall and learnt what is important for us,” said the 33-year-old defender.
“It makes us ready for tomorrow. It feels like we have a trust in this group with these players and staff that makes us more prepared than we have been at earlier tournaments.”
As ever Sweden will be given a lift by the enormous following that greets them in major tournaments with more than 30,000 expected to carpet the stands in yellow and blue. South Korea’s coach Shin Taeyong is confident his side, which is built to bring the best out of Tottenham’s Heung-min Son, will not be fazed.
“Our lads have lots of experiences on big stages around the world. Even though the fans might be from Sweden, we’d think of them as Korean fans cheering for us.”
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