Euro 2016: Sweden's hopes rest on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but qualification from 'group of death' looks tough

Sweden's squad for Euro 2016 has a good mix of experience and youth. Coach Erik Hamren will attempt to build the right support system around Zlatan Ibrahimovic to ensure they can finally make a mark on a major international tournament and improve their below-par showing at such events. Their best run at a European Championship came in 1992, when they reached the semi-final stage as tournament hosts; but the Swedes have even failed to make it past the group stage since the 2004 event in Portugal.

It might well be tough for Hamren's side once again in France, as they have been drawn alongside Belgium, Italy and Republic of Ireland. Belgium and Italy are favourites to progress to the knockout stage and Sweden are expected to finish third. But that's on paper and Sweden might have it in them to reach their first knockout round in 12 years. After all, they lost just two matches in the entire qualification campaign, at home to Austria and away to Russia. They finished third in their group and faced a knock-out tie against Denmark, an enthralling affair where Sweden qualified after winning 4-3 over the two legs.

 Euro 2016: Swedens hopes rest on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but qualification from group of death looks tough

Zlatam Ibrahimovic will once again hold the key for Sweden at the European Championship. AFP

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic is part of your squad, the attention will rest on him. The hottest free agent in world football looks set to be on his way to Manchester United right now. For the 34-year-old, the 2016 Euros could well be the last major international tournament and he would like to bow out "like a legend" on the international stage, just like the way he did at Paris-Saint Germain, earlier this year.

Hamren, like Ibrahimovic, fancies a 4-4-1-1 formation. With Zlatan the key member of the squad, it is only normal that Hamren's tactics are principally centered around the former Paris Saint Germain striker.

Playing back-up for Zlatan, John Guidetti is also in decent goal-scoring form having scored 12 goals for Celta Viga this season and could be a secret weapon for Hamren. The bulk of the responsibility will always lie with the captain and talisman, but in Guidetti, Sweden have a good cover. Marcus Berg, who plays for Pananthinaikos, will be another player Hamren could use to link-up with Zlatan. The two will have to be on their toes as far as finishing is concerned because Ibra has moved slightly deeper when he plays for his country, à la a shadow striker. That makes sense as it asks less of the 34-year-old's legs and allows him to orchestrate the attack better. But that comes at a price, as it means the responsibility of scoring goals is shared among all attackers, who all need to deliver in front of the goal.

Hamren's team includes plenty of young faces and there is good reason for that. The Swedish Under-21 team won the European Championship recently and the senior manager evidently held the squad in high regard. As a result, six players from the U-21 squad have been included in the final 23-man list. It's encouraging for the team and its fans that their manager is building for the future though not all of the talented young players may end up getting into his starting XI.

Victor Lindelof is one of Sweden's finest young players right now, the new star on the horizon. He has absolutely exploded over the course of last season at Benfica, where he ended the season as an integral part of the first team, attracting attention from a host of European clubs. Lindelof is actually a midfielder, but was used as a defender by the Portuguese club and Hamren too is expected to employ him in defence. The fact that he is a midfielder is an added advantage when playing in defence, as he can help in quick transition from defence to attack.

Emil Forsberg is 24, and testament to the quality among Sweden's young ranks. Plying his trade for RB Leipzig in the 2 Bundesliga, the player is being courted by Liverpool and Everton, according to certain reports. The attacker is outrageously talented, and next only to Zlatan. He will hold Sweden's keys in the attacking department. He likes to drift in from his position, mostly on the left flank, to the centre and sometimes even on the right to overload the area. He is confident on the ball and his decision making is extremely good. In the key play-off game against Denmark, Forsberg didn't put a foot wrong and wreaked havoc with his electric runs and beautiful skills.

Albin Ekdal was included despite some doubts over his fitness after an injury at a nightclub. He might be another wildcard at Harmen's disposal. The Hamburg midfielder is versatile and has experience (at club level in Germany and Italy), which he will be able to exploit to his advantage at the Euros.

Given that Belgium and Italy are in the same group, Sweden's chances of qualifying are admittedly low, with the general feeling being that the side can go into the tournament and fight for the third spot. One obvious weakness is that the team is built around Zlatan; if he doesn't perform or gets injured, does Hamren really have an adequate Plan B? The defence too is not the most solid and there is also no guarantee who will start at the back. Celtic's Mikael Lustig is the only recognised right-back and there is no back-up. Veteran centre-back Mikael Antonsson is out injured, but that would give the talented Lindelof an opportunity. Oscar Wendt, considered Sweden's best left-back, has fallen out with Hamren and isn't included.

At best, they might reach the last 16 but more isn't expected. However, the slightly unexpected U-21 Euro win has given the Swedish faithful renewed hope. They possibly will have a new captain after the Euros, with Zlatan expected to call it quits. The country will also have a new manager coming in, with Janne Andersson replacing Hamren. This will be the last opportunity for both Zlatan and Hamren, who would be looking to give everything in one final effort as they bid their national tenures a goodbye.

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Updated Date: Jun 10, 2016 18:11:51 IST