||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: May 29, 9:45 PM UK
Sweden: Looking back to '92
Sweden have become a regular fixture when it comes to international tournaments and have been involved in every finals tournament since the 2000 European Championships, this being their fifth consecutive finals.
Their best performance in the Euros came when they were hosts in 1992, reaching the semi-finals where they were beaten 3-2 by Germany. Coincidentally, it was the first time Sweden had made the finals - and they of course did not have to qualify as hosts.
The Scandinavian nation has never come close to emulating their achievements at the 1994 World Cup in the United States when they finished in third place, which was ironically followed by their failure to qualify for both Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.Though it is now a great surprise if they are not in a tournament and have been in four of the last five Euros.
Sweden have progressed through the group stage in each of the past three international tournaments but have been beaten in the first knockout round. Coincidentally they share with Spain the distinction of being superb in qualifying and a disappointment at finals tournaments.
Spain and Sweden both qualified from Group F so there will be few surprises when the pair meet in Innsbruck on June 14. The Swedes won on home soil, Elmander and Marcus Allbäck scoring the goals. And Spain gained revenge in Madrid with a 3-0 win, the scorers being Joan Capdevila, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos.
Though Northern Ireland, who finished third, were not eliminated until the final week of matches, it had been evident for some time that only a bizarre combination of results was going to send them to the finals. A 2-1 home win for Sweden over Latvia and Northern Ireland's loss in Spain on the final night secured their place.
Another crucial point in qualifying came when Sweden travelled to Denmark. With the score at 3-3, referee Herbert Fandel awarded a penalty to the Swedes and an irate fan invaded the pitch to confront him. It resulted in the match being abandoned and a 3-0 victory being awarded to Sweden. Granted, Denmark may have lost the game regardless through the penalty kick but it put a huge dent in their hopes.
Swedish fans will fully expect to see their team make it through to the quarter-finals, though they are unlikely to get things their own way with Spain in the same group along with Guus Hiddink's Russia and holders Greece. Many believe that while Spain are favourites to progress and the second position could go to any of the remaining three sides. There seems certain to be a tough test lying in wait with the Group D qualifiers facing a team from the now famed Group of Death.
After enjoying a successful partnership with Tommy Soderberg, Lars Lagerback became the sole coach of the national team following Euro 2004. The pair had worked together with the national side since 1998, meaning 59-year-old is on the verge of completing a decade as part of the set-up. Lagerback was initially assistant manager until he was promoted to equal billing in 2000.
Lagerback was never a success as a player, representing minnows Alby FF and Gimonas CK. He moved into coaching in 1977 with Kilafors IF and also coached Arbra BK and Hudiksvalls ABK before joining the Swedish FA as a youth coach in 1990. He was promoted to 'B' team coach in 1995, then promoted to be Soderberg's second in command with the full squad three years later.
The coach came in for much criticism from media and fans alike following Sweden's failure to make it past the Round of 16 at the World Cup, even though they were eliminated by hosts Germany.
However, he has pulled off something of a coup in the run-up to the Euros with Henrik Larsson again tempted out of international retirement to play on the big stage. It leaves questions as to who will play up front alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic as many had expected the Inter Milan striker to be paired with Elmander. Whether Lagerback opts to use Larsson as an impact player or as an integral part of his first choice Xi remains to be seen.
While Sweden have often struggled as an attacking force, concentrating more on a obdurate style, Lagerback has worked more freedom into their play. Despite a season of injury troubles skipper Freddie Ljungberg is in the squad and would be an automatic choice as a wing man. But it remains to be seen if the West Ham player can prove his fitness. Christian Wilhelmsson, who endured a painful loan spell with Bolton Wanderers, will patrol the other flank.
The other major question for the coach comes between the sticks, with Andreas Isaksson spending most of the season on the bench at Manchester City. The other options are Hammarby's former Arsenal stopper Rami Shaaban and Johan Wiland of Elfsborg. It seems more likely he will stick with experience despite a lack of match practice.
Sweden will look to Ibrahimovic to be the inspiration in Austria and Switzerland. He will be fresh from scoring both goals in the victory which secured the Serie A title again for Inter. A striker who fans across the continent seem to love or hate, there can be no doubt that he is a real danger.
Ibrahimovic, a flamboyant yet temperamental forward, started his career with Malmo before moving to Ajax Amsterdam for a fee of around £5million in 2001. After three years in the Eredivisie he was snapped up by Juventus in a £12.5million deal but his stay was a short one as he left following Juve's demotion to Serie B as part of the Calciopoli scandal.
The 26-year-old scored 23 goals in 70 games for Juve which was hardly prolific but he still commanded a £16million fee when moving to the San Siro in 2006. With Inter, Ibrahimovic has enjoyed the best form of his career to date after scoring 15 goals in 2006/07 and then another 17 this season.
Despite being a towering though slight figure at 6' 4'', Ibrahimovic does possess good ball control and agility. Many would consider him a scorer of great goals than a great goalscoer but his past two domestic seasons have attempted to address that.
He made his debut for Sweden against the Faroe Islands in June 2001 but it wasn't until Euro 2004 that he became a fixture in the starting XI, scoring twice. But he failed to get on the scoresheet at the 2006 World Cup in four appearances. Many felt he had under-performed in Germany.
The striker also courted controversy during qualifying for the finals when he was caught in a nightclub with Wilhelmsson and Olof Mellberg before a game against Liechtenstein and all three were cut from the squad. Ibrahimovic then refused to join up with the team for the following qualifiers against Iceland and Spain in protest at the decision.
The fact that he didn't manage to score a single goal in qualifying only adds ammunition for those who believe he is a vastly over-rated striker who has been transferred for over inflated fees.
For a player regarded so highly by many he has too often faltered to deceive on the international stage. At the Euros he could prove to be one of the star turns. Equally, he could draw another blank.
Any thoughts? Then you can email Dale Johnson.