Wounded Sweden still confident
There were long faces aplenty and a real reluctance to talk from the Swedish players following their loss to Spain in Innsbruck on Friday. Understandably so, given that David Villa's stoppage-time winner had left their hopes of going through to the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2008 totally dependent on getting a result against Russia next Wednesday.
"Even though I think we defended well during the game, they managed to score in the dying seconds. Now, we have to focus on Russia," said Olof Mellberg after the 2-1 defeat by the Spanish. The central defender openly admitted the result had been a major setback, adding: "It's hard as we defended very well for 92 minutes. Yes, they had a lot of possession but they didn't manage to create many clear-cut chances, which is why it hurts so much."
Lars Lagerback's men did indeed keep their composure after going behind to a Fernando Torres strike on 15 minutes, adeptly containing the normally free-flowing Spanish midfield. Sweden's defence held firm and made sure David Villa's wizardry in the final third posed no serious goal threat - until the 92nd minute.
Mellberg made no attempt to hide his displeasure afterwards: " . Spain dominated during certain phases and had good possession, but they didn't create much danger." As much as anyone, the central defender had his hands full on Friday trying to contain the twin threat of Torres and Villa, who he describes as "great strikers".
While the 30-year-old feels Spain are one of the favourites for the title, he is not dismissing his own side's chances yet. He also insisted that bad luck rather than poor play had cost them against the Iberians, and was confident of a better outcome in their next game: "We felt strong out there. We played well all game and believed we'd get a result. We need to continue in that vein, believing in ourselves, and beat Russia for a place in the quarter-finals."
Striker Johan Elmander shared his team-mate's opinion, saying, "I think we played very well and were unlucky right at the end. However, we now have to take what positives we can from the game in order to go further. In terms of our positioning and defending, we were very good, and I firmly believe that if we keep that up, we can beat Russia. I have complete confidence that we'll go through."
Striker Henrik Larsson, one of Sweden's most menacing players thus far at EURO 2008, looked particularly sullen as he left the pitch. On this occasion not even his movement, ability to shake off markers and proven understanding with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Fredrik Ljungberg and Elmander were enough to derail a Spanish side buoyed by the superb recent form of Torres and Villa. "Losing like that really hurts," he said tersely, before adding, "Spain are still favourites in my opinion. They're a very good, powerful team that can score from all types of situations and against anyone."
After a lengthy career that has seen him score an impressive 36 goals in 97 internationals, Larsson would dearly love to go out on a high at EURO 2008. Interestingly, he almost missed out on this championship, the 36-year-old having retired from national team duty after the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. He played no part in the qualifying campaign for EURO 2008, but an appeal from Lagerback convinced the striker to reconsider and lend his countrymen a hand at the continental showpiece - a decision, he tells FIFA.com, he is "still happy with".
Equally pleased with Larsson's return are his team-mates, as confirmed by Elmander. "I'm delighted he's back, because he has achieved some great things in football. He's a vital player for us who brings a lot of experience and competitive spirit to the team."
Larsson is still confident his side can get the point they need against a tough Russian team whose coach Guus Hiddink knows a thing or two about causing upsets at major competitions. "We just need a good result against them," he says nonchalantly as he leaves the Tivoli Neu stadium. Whether his confidence proves well-founded will be revealed at the same ground on Wednesday, when the veteran will be hoping to see his side progress in the competition, and keep his swansong on hold for at least another game.