World Cup 2018: Sweden Preview
In a group which boasts a three-horse race for second place, Sweden will be hopeful that they can progress into the knock-out stages.
Swedish football and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have become synonymous over the last decade and, as such, a Swedish national side without the big striker is foreign even to many Swedes.
However, in recent years, other talents have surfaced and, while there is no replacing Ibrahimovic, there is a contingent who insist the national team as a whole performs better in his absence.
Yet despite these flashes of promise from within the Swedish squad, the nation made harder work of their route into the finals in Russia than they might have liked to, only assuring their qualification through a famous play-off against World Cup regulars, Italy.
Of course, with France in their qualifying group, the second-place finish could be forgiven. However, the fact that the Swedes only finished ahead of the Netherlands on goal difference would suggest they were cutting it a little fine.
There is a sense, then, that Sweden are something of an unknown quantity coming into this competition.
How will they perform without the man known affectionately as ‘Zlatan’? Will their forward have enough going forward to cause opposition defences any problems?
These questions will only be answered in the course of the World Cup group stages.
Road to Russia
With 19 points in ten games in a group featuring France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Belarus, Sweden finished second to Deschamps’ Les Bleus.
Their goal difference of +17 was the best in the group and also what finally put them ahead of the Netherlands with whom they were tied with on points.
Coincidentally, +17 was also Sweden’s total goal difference across the four games against Belarus and Luxembourg. Every game counts.
Coming up against Italy in the play-offs, it looked as though the Scandinavian team’s luck was up. However, a 1-0 victory in Stockholm followed by a 0-0 result in Rome proved to be enough to take Janne Andersson’s team through into the finals in Russia.
Sweden play in an increasingly rare 4-4-2 which makes the most of their two strikers, Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen.
While there are questions about how prolific this pairing can be, both of whom picked up the majority of their goals in World Cup qualifying against weaker sides, Janne Andersson seems convinced of the wisdom of this approach.
With Sebastian Larsson playing in a midfield two, his partner, Jakob Johansson, will be aware of the former’s advancing years. Johansson, then will have to make sure he offers cover in the midfield area for the Swedish captain.
Elsewhere, Mikael Lustig sits on the right-hand side of a back four which includes Victor Lindelof, the Manchester United player who has had a tough first season at the English club.
Key Player: Emil Forsberg
Probably the first Swedish player to have an objectively better season than Ibrahimovic in over a decade, Emil Forsberg accumulated eight goals and a league-leading 19 assists in RB Leipzig’s spectacular 2016/17 season.
Liverpool-bound Naby Keïta and Germany’s current first-choice striker Timo Werner saw more plaudits but Forsberg’s chance creation and immaculate set piece delivery were instrumental to the newly promoted side’s historic second-place finish.
Both Forsberg and RB Leipzig failed to repeat that success this season, as the left-sided attacking mid contributed a pedestrian four goals + assists, in part due to injuries, as his team finished sixth.
If the Swedes are to have any chance of advancement, they will need the most talented player in their squad to return to form.
Group F: Germany, South Korea, Mexico
Barring a huge misstep from the reigning world champions from across the Baltic sea, Group F will be a three-horse race for second place.
South Korea are comparable to Sweden in that their star player is a left-sided attacker. The gap in talent from Son Heung-min to the rest of the squad is, however, huge.
Mexico are the second most talented team in the group with a number of players making a difference in big leagues across Europe.
While Sweden will see progressing into the knock-out stages as eminently doable, they could just as easily find themselves outside the top two by the time the group stages come to an end.
Prediction: Group Stage exit
While they have every chance of climbing out of Group F, Sweden are less talented now than they have been in years past and almost certainly less talented than they will be in a few years.
There may be truth to the idea that the collective is better and more fluid without the demanding presence of Ibrahimovic but, while his time has come, lasted, lasted, lasted, and now presumably gone, the new generation has yet to flourish.
However, if they do manage to finish second, their first knockout game will be against the winners of group E. And, as you may well know, Brazil are in that group.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss the potential winners of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.