Sweden might not have won a game all year but their stuttering form won’t detract from the anticipation of a first World Cup since 2006.
Janne Andersson’s side faces Shin Tae-yong’s South Korea on the 16th June in Nizhny Novgorod with both teams looking for a decent start ahead of troubling fixtures against Mexico and the German world champions.
Joachim Low’s smooth assassins might be nailed on for top spot, but second and a place in the Round of 16 may well await the winner of this crucial game.
With that in mind, here are some key battles that could decide the outcome.
Marcus Berg (Sweden) vs Kim Young-gwan (South Korea)
Only Romelu Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Robert Lewandowski scored more goals than Marcus Berg in UEFA qualifying. Fans of HSV and PSV might be confused by that statistic, having watched the 31-year-old lumber through worrisome spells at both clubs, but Berg is enjoying something of an Indian Summer with Al Ain. He registered 30 goals in his debut season for the Al-Ain and will be keen to continue his red-hot form against South Korea.
To do that, he’ll need to get past Kim Young-gwan. The Ghanzhou Evergrande defender is experienced at international level, boasting a half-century of caps for the Taeguk Warriors.
He has been a key player under several coaches at club level, notably Marcello Lippi, Felipao and former Ballon d’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro.
Emil Forsberg vs Koo Ja-cheol
Emil Forsberg has had a listless season by his own vaunted standards. After lodging 22 assists in the league alone last year, he has struggled to stay fit and lethal this time around.
Drifting infield from his berth on the left, the RB Leipzig star will devour space in the centre of the field, stitching Sweden’s play together before unleashing cutting passes from deep.
Koo Ja-cheol will be familiar with Forsberg’s talents. The FC Augsburg man has enjoyed a solid career in Germany, one that also included a brief spell at Mainz. Comparisons with Frank Lampard flatter the former national captain, but he has a decent engine and a keen eye for a late run.
Against Sweden, his main task will be to bypass Forsberg and the metronomic Albin Ekdal to hurt a vulnerable Scandinavian defence with his movement and finishing.
Mikael Lustig vs Son Heung-min
Shin Tae-yong has been forthright about his country’s desire to play to Heung-min Son’s strengths, even attempting to replicate the formation used by his club side Tottenham Hotspur.
The winger enjoyed a fabulous year at club level, scoring and assisting for fun even as Mauricio Pochettino’s men stultified. Much of the country’s hopes rest on Son’s ability to raid infield and lash in finishes.
Mikael Lustig will have something to say about that though. Celtic’s dogged full back isn’t used to high-level competition in the Scottish Premier League, but he has considerable European experience as well as a proven record at international level.
His main job in Nizhny Novgorod will be to shut Son down at every opportunity, denying him the space and time necessary to make use of his trademark pace and skill. If Lustig can lock Son down, Sweden will be halfway towards a positive result.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group H in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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