Samara: Netherlands, Italy, Germany… England? In the absence of its giant, Sweden continue their giant-killing act. It is a measure of the success achieved by Janne Andersson’s side that the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not caught up at the World Cup. Ibrahimovic said in April that he would be in Russia and he kept his word. But a sponsor’s event was all he would do. His former teammates have been up to better things.
Sweden’s best display at the World Cup for 24 years began on an unseemly note when a member of the coaching staff was asked to leave South Korea’s training session before the teams’ opening game. However, there have been few missteps since the spying episode. The Swedish players have decisively moved away from the Zlatan years and done so admirably.
Few sides would recover from conceding a last-minute goal to Germany when qualification seemed within their grasp. However, Sweden showed no hangover as they roared back with a 3-0 win over Mexico to not only progress to the Round of 16, but do so as the group leaders. This meant that a much tougher fixture against Brazil was avoided, and the Swedes ran out comfortable winners over Switzerland in their knockout encounter.
Now, England await. A country which has had an undue influence on Swedish football, to the extent that even Andersson still prefers the 4-4-2 formation. The accomplishments of Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton in the 1970s carry deep resonance and one can see hints of that legacy in the way Sweden has defended in this World Cup. With 111 clearances in four matches, Andersson’s side has cleared the ball more often than any other team in the tournament. Led by skipper Andreas Granqvist, Sweden’s resolute defence has been breached by only Germany till now.
It is remarkable how far the defensive organisation has taken Andersson and his players. Sweden returned to the World Cup after 12 years and most of their squad does not feature in the Champions League for their clubs. Yet, under Andersson, an unbreakable team ethic has directed the players in the right direction.
“From the moment Janne came in, our directions have been very, very clear. We all agreed on the important principles and how we should act, on and off the pitch, that the team is more important than anything else. And you can see that on the pitch, every single one of us works incredibly hard out there, offensively and defensively. That hard work is the symbol of this national team,” Granqvist told The Guardian.
The hard work has carried Sweden thus far and it may prove to be decisive against an English side prone to sloppy moments. In a traditional sense, the Swedes are more English than England at this World Cup. Their emphasis on work rate and organisation is supplemented by the presence of one supremely talented individual — Emil Forsberg, whose spark and inventive play proved to be crucial in the Round of 16 match against Switzerland.
However, goals are a problem. Strikers Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg only have a goal between them in this World Cup while every other quarter-finalist scored more than Sweden on its way to the Last Eight. With just six goals in four matches, Andersson’s players may struggle to exploit the weaknesses which lie in the English defence.
England has defeated Sweden only once in their last eight competitive matches but that victory arrived in their most recent meeting at Euro 2012. The Swedes, on the other hand, have not registered a win over England since a Euro qualifier in September 1998 (barring friendlies). And not many give them a chance to change the record here on Saturday.
However, Sweden were not given much of a chance before the World Cup began either. Ibrahimovic’s absence was supposed to leave the team without a leader on the pitch, and without bite in attack. The latter has turned out be true but there has been no risk of the team wandering aimlessly. Andersson’s training has been complemented by the no-nonsense approach adopted by skipper Granqvist. Nicknamed Granen, christmas tree in Swedish, the 33-year-old has been the man identified with the festive feeling which has taken over his compatriots.
If England are defeated, Sweden can visualise another reality in which they no longer live under the shadow of the country which brought the first football revolution to its shores. In the public imagination, England has carried as much influence as the now-retired Ibrahimovic. But if a place in the semi-final on 11 July at the Luzhniki Stadium is secured, Sweden can move further away from their familiar ghosts. After all, even Ibrahimovic could not have taken his teammates so far.
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Updated Date: Jul 07, 2018 14:21:38 IST