Sunday, June 18, 2006 ESPNsoccernet: June 19, 6:15 PM UK
Right place, right time
After 179 minutes of gallant and fruitless effort, Sweden's World Cup ambitions were on the brink of evaporating into the Berlin air on Tuesday night.
Freddie Ljungberg's goal rescued his country's hopes of qualification. (CliveMason/GettyImages)
If their shock stalemate against Trinidad & Tobago had been followed up with another scoreless draw against Paraguay, Lars Lagerback and his side could have kissed goodbye to their hopes of winning Group B. In addition, after two such disappointing results, the momentum every side craves would have been lost for good.
So it is impossible to underestimate the importance of Freddie Ljungberg's dramatic headed winner that saw off Paraguay and sent those blonde Swedish beauties in the crowd into ecstasy. Indeed, that solitary goal may just have transformed the path for both England and Sweden in this World Cup.
Ljungberg is expected to pop up with the most crucial of goals when all seems lost for his Arsenal side, but he has not been able to produce such miracles with so much consistency in the golden shirt of Sweden down the years and for that reason, his moment in the spotlight was one of his most cherished.
'I'm so proud I could score the goal, to give something back to the thousands of supporters who are following us around Germany,' he begins. 'They deserve to be rewarded and I haven't always been able to do it with Sweden, but now it has happened.
'The Trinidad result was a big shock for us, but when you look at the tape, we could have won that game by three or four goals. To me, we played better against Trinidad than we did in the Paraguay game, but the chances were not taken so everyone sees it as a disaster.
'It's amazing really. If that goal had not come, everyone would have been full of disappointment, but not we are sitting here thinking about topping the group and looking at the latter stages. We were so close to going nowhere, but now our chance is there.
'Still, we are only half the way there. We have four points now and now it's all a question of trying to finish the job off in our last game. If we beat England, everyone will forget about what has gone before.'
Nothing they can do would surprise us.
— Ljungberg on England
The sight of the Arsenal hero breaking Paraguay hearts so late in the game on Thursday night was all the more remarkable when you consider he was advised to sit out the group phase of the competition in a bid to overcome a foot injury.
'The Swedish team doctor told me the only way I could solve the problem would be to have four weeks rest, but that was not an option with the World Cup coming up,' he confirms.
'I have had so many injuries in the last couple of years and they get you down. There are times when you wonder if you will ever be fully fit again. Still, this is the World Cup and you cannot sit around feeling sorry for yourself.
'My foot is sore and it swells up during every game. We have to drain some blood from it after a match, but it doesn't stop me running and this is a pain I'm willing to put up with. It's worth it for moments like I experienced on Thursday night.'
While the Swedish media may be focusing on Ljungberg's foot, their English counterparts have long been obsessed with Wayne Rooney's right peg and the fitness saga surrounding the Manchester United forward may have covered up the flaws in Sven Goran Eriksson's misfiring side, though Ljungberg clearly understands why that has been the case.
'Rooney is a special player, so people will want to talk about him and there is no doubt the England side is better when he is there,' states the Arsenal man.
'They play a different way with Rooney around because he offers such a threat in attack and it means they can play the ball to feet a little more. They are a good side without Rooney and a better one with him.
'Still, I'm convinced we have what it takes to do well against England and now it's just a question of proving it. Topping this group could be crucial because no one wants to play Germany in the second round and that is why this has become a massive game.
'England are a side with great players, but they don't always play as you think they might and that's why Sweden have done so well against them over the years. I think you have to go back to 1968 for the last time England beat Sweden and they were World Champions at that time, so we have a lot of history on our side and that's always positive.
'They will say there has to be a moment when their luck will turn against Sweden, but our job is to make sure it is not this time. Nothing they can do would surprise us, which is a great advantage from our point of view, and the mood in the Sweden camp now is so different.'
What a difference a last-minute winner can make. Just two days before the Paraguay game, Ljungberg and coach Lagerback endured a tortuous media grilling that was dominated by rumours of another scuffle between the normally placid Arsenal man and skipper Olof Mellberg.
Ljungberg famously squared up to the Aston Villa defender on camera in the build-up to the last World Cup and following the embarrassing stalemate against Trinidad and Tobago last Saturday, the pair are said to have clashed once again.
The Dutch camp is traditionally famed for breaking apart amid internal fighting during a World Cup, so for the normally cool Swedes to be cracking seems an unusual scenario, yet Freddie does his best to play down the spat.
'I find it sad that these stories come out of the dressing room because they should stay there,' is Ljungberg's reaction to the storm. 'There was a discussion in the dressing room after the game and a few important points were made. I won't say any more.
'Mellberg is not a guy I socialise with, but that isn't a problem as I respect him as a player and a person. You can work with someone even if you are not the best of friends.'
Battered, bruised and bleeding he may be, yet Freddie Ljungberg is more than capable of piling more misery on a stuttering England team this Tuesday.