Tuesday 25 June 2019

Sweden hope 'real team mentality' will shine through post-Ibrahimovic

Sweden's forward Marcus Berg and Sweden's coach Janne Andersson attend a training session at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Sweden's forward Marcus Berg and Sweden's coach Janne Andersson attend a training session at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Lawrence Ostlere

For anyone tuning in to the World Cup and wondering why Italy and Holland are not there, the simple answer is that neither could overcome Sweden.

Janne Andersson's Swedes came through a qualifying group with France and the Netherlands to reach the play-offs, where they knocked out Italy with a stubborn 1-0 win over 180 minutes in Gothenburg and Rome, navigating a particularly dangerous road to Russia.

But dig a little deeper and Sweden's cracks are revealed.

They have won only once in eight matches since thrashing Luxembourg 8-0 last October, and most concerning in that run was a goal tally of just three.

They created only two shots on target in June's warm-up friendlies against Denmark and Peru, both of which ended in goalless draws.

Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of losing a leader like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as the team naturally recalibrates from flamboyant individualism to collective cohesion.

They are unlikely to replicate the glutinous goalscoring of USA 94, the most recent of Sweden's four semi-final appearances, but their top scorer that summer in America, Kennet Andersson, says he recognises similarities in the spirit of the current side.

"I think they have the same strength as we had that time, because it's a real team mentality," said Andersson, who scored five goals in 1994 as Sweden finished third.

"You can see that every player works well together and works hard for each other.

"The little problem is scoring, but we have the strikers."

In a sturdy 4-4-2, it is Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen who are tasked with getting goals. Berg scored eight in qualifying, but there are doubts over the 31-year-old after he spent this season at UAE Premier League side Al-Ain, not a division teeming with international defenders (though he finished the season as top scorer with 21 goals in 21 games).

The former Sunderland forward Toivonen is also 31, lacks pace, and lacks form, having spent most of the season on Toulouse's bench.

The lack of a focal point in attack heaves Swedish expectation upon their maverick midfield talent, Emil Forsberg.

The RB Leipzig winger is a fleet-footed gnat of a footballer who buzzes through narrow gaps and carries high nuisance factor.

Speaking yesterday ahead of Sweden's Group F opener against South Korea in Nizhny Novgorod today, captain Andreas Granqvist talked up the team's mental strength.

"We've worked a lot with our sports psychology advisor Daniel Ekwall and learnt what is important for us," said the 33-year-old defender.

Sweden will be given a lift by the enormous following that greets them in major tournaments, with more than 30,000 expected to carpet the stands in yellow and blue.

South Korea coach Shin Tae-yong is confident his side, built to bring the best out of Tottenham's Son Heung-min, will not be fazed.

"Our lads have lots of experiences on big stages. Even though the fans might be from Sweden, we'd think of them as Korean fans cheering for us."

Irish Independent

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