Sweden anticipate skullduggery as Ireland seek to defy the odds

Pauw says her team play passionately but always by the rules ahead of Women’s World Cup qualifier

Sweden v Republic of Ireland 
Gamela Ullevi, 5.30pm - Live RTÉ2

Broad brush strokes paint Gothenburg and the Swedish way of life as utopian. Superior to Dublin’s dirty old town and housing crisis, the city is as efficient as it is jaw-droppingly expensive.

Similar characteristics apply to their phenomenal national football team, the Blågult.

Perhaps the residue of Sonia O’Sullivan’s superhuman feat from 1995, when she captured the world championships gold medal in the 5,000 metres at the stadium right next door to this venue, will inspire a comparable moment. Because to beat Sweden would be a sensational result.

It is possible. Head coach Peter Gerhardsson put it best when saying we are all "human beings". This is unquestionably true, with nobody pausing to wonder whether the Adidas marketing campaign, which has the Sweden shirt label providing minutiae on how to beat them, is seen as bald arrogance by the Olympic silver medallists.

All very unIrish and yet, as Gerhardsson emphasised, the aim is to erase an outdated notion of the Swedish underdog.

“They are a very good group and they are very good human beings,” he said of his own players. “It is pretty easy to be a coach for them because they have ambition to be the best in every moment and they have respect for each other.

"It doesn't matter what team we play, even Georgia [15-nil] in the last game, the preparation for us for that game was exactly the same as preparation for playing the US.

“At training you can see that they do everything 100 per cent. I know they are competing with each other for places in the squad for the European Championship this summer, but they are humble to each other, they help each other, they coach each other and that is very important for me as a coach.”

Fair enough, but the question was about the new shirt. Any chance of pride coming before the fall?

“I think everybody knows these things and if they don’t know it, buy the shirt and you can see it.”

The local media giggle in delight.

“Every country have well-scouted teams and players,” Gerhardsson explained. “I don’t like to be an underdog. I don’t like the talk about liking to be an underdog.

Underdogs

“You like to be a winner. When you win then you are starting something and it is more something you have done. If you are favourites, if you have a good ranking, it doesn’t mean you will win the next game. But it is nicer, I think. Also, the opportunity to win the game is better if you have a high ranking and you are the better team.”

Not arrogance, just facts, as Sweden are unbeaten these past two years besides the disastrous Olympic final stumble against Canada.

“Somebody said it is the Swedish style that we like being underdogs but we should not talk about people, we are from Sweden, but we are human beings. These players, I think they like to win, they like to be favourites. They are [favourites] in their clubs and they can also be in the national team.”

Fridolina Rolfö likes winning for Barcelona, and others like winning for Juventus, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. That's why a draw would sit alongside the Irish men's best qualification results on foreign soil.

In all honesty, it looks beyond Ireland, even with Katie McCabe in stunning form for Arsenal and Denise O'Sullivan becoming one of the marquee midfielders in US soccer. But there is a formula to cause a massive upset that the cohort of Irish players at Birmingham City, led by the towering Louise Quinn, have employed as they exit the English Super League via the trap door.

"If you can try to stop their best players doing what they are good at," said Quinn, "and that could literally be pulling them to the ground, making sure you are closing them fast, making sure Caroline Seger cannot turn and ping the ball to [Stina] Blackstenius, that's a bit of a win".

Getting stuck into Sweden is guaranteed by any McCabe-led team but boot and bite will not be enough.

"As long as we have prepared mentally, and physically obviously, it's going to be a game like the last one," said Seger of October's 1-0 victory in Tallaght. "We always want the referee to protect our players and hopefully she will do a good job tomorrow."

Ireland manager Vera Pauw provided a bullish response to the mere suggestion of skulduggery.

“I don’t know what they were talking about; there is no opponent in this position who gives as few free kicks away,” said Pauw. “We know we play with passion but we always play within the rules.”

Searing spotlight

Pauw played down any chances of denying Sweden a clean sweep of Group A, and qualification for next year's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, with a convoluted play-off path for the runners-up. September ties against Finland at home and Slovakia away are critical for the Dutch woman's time in charge to be deemed a success.

Her selection policy comes under a searing spotlight. Sweden will ruthlessly attack whoever replaces injured trio Savannah McCarthy, Diane Caldwell and Megan Campbell at left centre back or the 3-5-2-1 system will be temporarily abandoned. Rumour has it that Megan Connolly, a midfielder by trade, has trained in defence this week.

Big calls either way, but judging from recent Finnish and Italian goals against Sweden this is the same area Ireland could potentially expose a weakness.

Most importantly, can Pauw position McCabe and O'Sullivan closer to the Swedish goal? Will she ever trust Liverpool striker Leanne Kiernan? Can the obvious call of starting Brighton goalkeeper Megan Walsh ahead of Everton reserve Courtney Brosnan finally become a reality? How will Ireland cope with this finely tuned, and definitely not arrogant, Swedish Volvo?

As the Adidas mad men would say – impossible is nothing.

Sweden (possible): Lindahl (Atletico Madrid); Glas (Bayern Munich), LLestedt (Paris Saint-Germain), Eriksson (Chelsea), Andersson (Chelsea); Angeldahl (Manchester City), Rolfo (Barcelona), Seger (Rosengard, c); Hurtig (Juventus), Blackstenius (Arsneal), Schough (Rosengard).

Republic of Ireland (possible): M Walsh (Brighton and Hove Albion); Fahey (Liverpool), Louise Quinn (Birmingham City), Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion); Ziu (Shelbourne), Littlejohn (Aston Villa), O'Sullivan (North Carolina Courage), McCabe (Arsenal, c); Finn (Birmingham City), Lucy Quinn (Birmingham City); Payne (Florida State Seminoles).

Referee: Iuliana Dementrescu (Romania)