Swedes seek Beijing balance

Sweden have long been active frontrunners in the women's game. However, their golden generation - led most notably by the front pairing of Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson - seems to be approaching its sell-by date with the all-important Olympic Football Tournament approaching.

The clearest indication that the once-unstoppable and dynamic front duo of Ljungberg and Svensson had begun to unravel came last September in Chengdu, China. Unable to produce the understanding and sharpness of old, the duo toiled as Sweden tumbled out of the FIFA Women's World Cup at the group stage for the first time in their history

"I feel totally empty right now," long-time Swedish captain Victoria Svensson told FIFA.com after winning, losing and drawing in the first round. "We didn't take our chances through all three matches,"added coach Thomas Dennerby said, signaling a troubling trend for a side that had previously been so potent.

Ljungberg, now 29, has been dogged by injuries and illness of late and even missed the UEFA Women's Cup final last month when her Umea side lost to Frankfurt. Trying to play her way back to fitness after a hamstring tear, her selection for the Beijing games is in no way certain. "If I return for my club, I don't think getting picked for the national squad will be a problem," Ljungberg said. "But I need to get back, play some games and practice football for more than a few weeks at a time."

Ljungberg's long-time strike partner, Svensson, is still with the Swedish set-up and looks likely to be the team's skipper in China. With 138 caps and 59 goals for the national team, the dribbling wizard is the stuff of legend in Swedish women's football. However, like Ljungberg, she looked to have lost a step or two at last year's world finals.

Cue the new girls
With an eye to the future, the Swedish team's focal point has shifted to a new crop of outstanding players led by the always-impressive Goteborg ace Lotta Schelin. Voted Sweden's best player in 2006 and top scorer in the Swedish top flight in 2007, Schelin, tall and rangy, is often compared to men's counterpart Zlatan Ibrahimovic in terms of goal sense, guile and creativity.

Stina Segerstrom, Caroline Seger and Madelaine Edlund all proved themselves worthy successors of the old Viking tradition in China last year and are likely to play key roles in Beijing this Summer. "We have a great future ahead of us," said Dennerby. "There were a lot of young players who showed good form at the World Cup in China."

Terese Sjogren, 31, of Malmo FF was named Sweden's best player for 2007 and looks likely to play a major role as well. Despite her advancing age, the midfield organizer is currently undergoing a revival of form that she hopes will keep up through the Olympics, where the Swedes will meet hosts China, Argentina and improving North American power Canada in the group stage.

"It feels good to go back to Beijing and take revenge," said Schelin after helping beat Denmark 7-3 on aggregate to reach the Olympics. "We knew we had everything in our own hands, but we were very nervous during the first 30 minutes. This means a lot to Swedish football and even though we didn't play that well, we were more efficient and that was decisive."

If coach Dennerby, a policeman by trade, can find a way to bring the wisdom of the old guard together with the verve of the new, Sweden could be in line for a first-ever Olympic medal this summer.