With a group of returning players from the team that finished runners-up four years ago in the USA, confidence in the Sweden camp was understandably high on arrival in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu for the start of this FIFA Women's World Cup. In the space of just three days and 180 minutes of football, however, their mood turned as dark and gloomy as a Stockholm winter.
To hear some of the returning Swede stars tell it, they have only themselves to blame as they reflect on their position at the foot of Group B. "It's a simple game," two-time Swedish player of the year Hanna Ljungberg said after her side conceded a late goal in their opener against Nigeria to turn three precious and deserved points into one. "You have to take your chances at any level in football, especially at the top," she added to FIFA.com. "If you don't. You just can't win. We just let too many chances go begging in that one... chances that could have killed of the Nigerians and given us three points."
The draw against the African champions was hard on the Swedes, who created a hatful of golden chances over the course of 90 minutes and hit the woodwork on no fewer than three occasions. In their second contest, against favourites and twice-world champions USA, the Swedes were again punished for their uncharacteristic lack of punch in attack. Ljungberg nearly scored in the opening seconds and strike partner and captain Victoria Svensson threatened a goal too in a dominant opening 30 minutes by Sweden, who had the Americans scrambling to keep pace.
In the end, however, the Scandinavians were undone by a mistake. Goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl misjudged a looping ball and allowed in the USA's Lori Chalupny, who was summarily taken down on her way to goal. Abby Wambach scored the resulting spot-kick and then hammered in a thumping half-volley in the second half to show both Ljungberg and Svensson where they had gone wrong. "She's one great striker," Ljungberg remarked plaintively about her opposite number after the game. "She doesn't waste any chances."
The same could not be said for the Swedes as Svensson told FIFA.com. "We were on fire in the first 30 minutes against the Americans, that's for sure," said the 30-year-old, who has scored Sweden's lone goal at these finals. "But as we did against Nigeria, we failed to find the back of the net when we had the chance."
Now facing elimination, the Swedes will find no solace in the identity of their final Group B opponents, whom they face in their new surroundings of Tianjin on Tuesday. A date with Korea DPR, whose fortunes at these finals appear in diametric opposition to theirs, will be no walk in the park. "We are under no illusions," Ljungberg added. "Our loss to the USA has made things very hard for us in terms of reaching the knockout rounds."
Trailing Korea DPR and USA by three points, they need to beat the Koreans by three clear goals. However, Ljungberg and Co can take some comfort from the fact that after a slow start in the USA four years ago, they came good in their final group fixture to beat Nigeria 3-0 and secure their progress. "We can't go into the game thinking we have no chance to qualify," Svensson concluded. "We have to try to win and finish strong." A win could yet do the trick for the Swedes but their strike force will know they must find their shooting boots first.