Group F: Sweden determined to show they’re not all about Zlatan
With their talismanic striker now retired, Sweden are very much the sum of their parts
Sweden upset the odds by beating Italy in the playoffs to qualify for the World Cup. Photo: Getty Images
Who are they?
Ireland’s old foes from the group stages of Euro 2016 have qualified for their 12th World Cup and been rewarded with quite the tough group. Runners-up in 1958, they’re a long way from those heights these days and will go into this year’s tournament without talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic following his retirement from international football. Without Ibrahimovic they are devoid of any real stars and recent friendly losses to Chile and Romania have shown that.
World Cup moment
In 1958 Sweden hosted the World Cup and almost completed a fairytale triumph on home soil, only to be denied by the Brazil of Pele and co. The Swedes coasted through the group stages, seeing off Wales along the way before eliminating the teams on both sides of the Iron Curtain – Soviet Union and West Germany – in the knockout stages. Despite taking an early lead the hosts were pegged back by Brazil and eventually beaten 5-2 in what is still the highest scoring World Cup final.
How did they get here?
Sweden surprised many in coming through the toughest European qualifying group which included France, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. The men in orange were far from on form, leaving Sweden to steal in and take second place despite losing three games. However, it didn’t get any easier from there as they drew Italy in the playoffs but managed to see off the Azzurri over two legs in what was a major shock.
Janne Andersson took over after Euro 2016 and just as Ibrahimovic announced his retirement but the 55-year-old has done an excellent job of bringing the squad together and moving on from their reliance on Zlatan. In Sweden he is renowned for the job he did at little IFK Norrköping where he guided the club to the league title in 2015 – a feat nobody believed to be possible.
The main man
Since Ibrahimovic’s retirement there is no real standout player for Sweden with the squad instead operating very much as a sum of its parts. RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg is the man who makes the team tick with his sublime range of passing and eye for goal from a dead ball situation. While he was quiet enough during the recent Bundesliga season he was a key component during Sweden’s qualifying campaign and they will rely on him to create chances in Russia.
The one to watch
Viktor Claesson plays on the opposite side of the midfield to Forsberg but offers similar creativity and his form of late has seen him linked with a move to Swansea. The 26-year-old is not exactly a young prospect but, again, this is a Sweden team that seems nearly glad of its ‘under the radar’ status after so many years of Zlatan fever.
While Sweden are far from one of the weaker teams in the tournament they have been unlucky in the group they have drawn. You would expect them to beat South Korea and lose to Germany and, assuming Mexico do the same in their first two games, it will come down to a Sweden v Mexico showdown in Yekaterinburg on the final matchday for second place.
Goalkeepers: Robin Olsen (Copenhagen), Karl-Johan Johnsson (Guingamp), Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Swansea).
Defenders: Mikael Lustig (Celtic), Victor Lindelof (Manchester United), Andreas Granqvist (Krasnador), Martin Olsson (Swansea), Ludwig Augustinsson (Werder Bremen), Filip Helander, Emil Krafth (both Bologna), Pontus Jansson (Leeds United).
Midfielders: Sebastian Larsson (Hull), Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), Emil Forsberg (RB Leipzig), Gustav Svensson (Seattle Sounders), Oscar Hiljemark (Genoa), Viktor Claesson (Krasnador), Marcus Rohden (Crotone), Jimmy Durmaz (Toulouse).
Forwards: Marcus Berg (Al Ain), John Guidetti (Alaves), Ola Toivonen (Toulouse), Isaac Kiese Thelin (Waasland-Beveren).