Sport Soccer

Saturday 18 November 2017

Incredible fightback places Swedes in recovery position

Sweden have their troubles but they also have their Zlatan, writes Dion Fanning

The story of a coach who appeared to be heading for the exit last October until he was saved by an unlikely result is a familiar one for Ireland. Giovanni Trapattoni survived after the victory in the Faroe Islands last October. When he heard the news in Torshavn that Sweden had recovered from 4-0 down to draw with Germany 4-4, Trapattoni slammed his hand on the table and shouted, "Cazzo!"

That result saved Erik Hamren who was in danger of losing his job before that recovery which had followed a disappointing European Championships.

Sweden, like Ireland, had taken six points from two games against the Faroes and Kazakhstan but they have also been unimpressive. Some in Sweden are concerned that they will once again struggle in a game they are supposed to win. They are also trying to deal with controversy after forward Alexander Gerndt withdrew from the squad following a public outcry at his selection. Gerndt was fined and given a suspended jail sentence for assaulting his wife in 2011. This led to an indefinite ban from the Swedish FA but this was lifted last year.

Hamren selected him for the Ireland game but, shocked by the reaction, last week Gerndt withdrew. With Johan Elmander injured, they have only one established striker in the squad. That striker is Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Not surprisingly, Zlatan is the cause of and solution to all of Sweden's problems. He can destroy teams on his own as he showed against England last year but there is also the sense that the rest of the squad wait for him to do something, rather than do it themselves.

Others wonder about his power within the squad and the hold he has over Hamren, an unassuming man from northern Sweden who has never looked comfortable in the spotlight.

When Hamren was appointed coach in 2009, Ibrahimovic had just announced his retirement from international football following Sweden's failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. It would be, he said, a "waste of energy" to play in the meaningless matches that followed.

Once he was appointed, Hamren spent two days talking with Ibrahimovic in his Malmo home and the forward emerged to announce he was now motivated again. Hamren appointed him captain.

Naturally, Ibrahimovic is a divisive figure. "He's a diva," says one Swedish journalist who also suggested that the captain has a strong say in team selection.

Zlatan can do nothing about the vulnerability in Sweden's defence where Jonas Olsson of West Brom and Genoa's Andreas Granqvist are often unconvincing, something they demonstrated in the first half against Germany with a vulnerability to crosses and the high ball.

The recovery against Germany was prompted by the half-time introduction of Kim Kallstrom. Kallstrom is said to be one of those who doesn't always get along with Zlatan but he played a decisive role in the second half, providing assists for the first two goals. The fourth, the equaliser, was scored by Rasmus Elm.

Elm has become an important player for Sweden in centre midfield. Unassuming and unselfish, he signed for CSKA Moscow last summer and he scores goals from midfield.

Hamren is instinctively drawn to this kind of player even if he has also had to cultivate Ibrahimovic. He has talked in the past of how he likes the players to sit together for half an hour during each meal as it draws the team closer and "improves players' focus".

Ireland might need a banquet at Bunratty Castle to improve things if Ibrahimovic plays as he did against England when he scored all four goals.

That game marked the opening of the Solna Friends Arena, Stockholm's new 50,000-seater stadium. Tonight the Bandy season will end with a game at the new stadium. Bandy is a game like ice hockey played between two teams of 11 players on a pitch the same size as a football pitch. An ice surface has been laid at the stadium for the game and tomorrow turf for Friday's match will be laid down so there must be some concerns about the surface.

Ireland might hope it gives them some advantage. Sweden may have stuttered in two of their qualifiers but they have the memory of the fightback against Germany to sustain them. Ireland's memories of the good times are a little fainter.

Irish Independent

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