Swedes go out on a low
"We achieved two of three goals," reflected Sweden coach Lars Lagerback in the aftermath of his team's FIFA World Cup exit. "For a country like Sweden to qualify for the finals and advance from the group stage, I think that is rather good."
Lagerback's argument is not unreasonable. After all, Sweden a country with a population of less than nine million were competing at their fourth successive major tournament in Germany and, as at Korea/Japan 2002 and UEFA EURO 2004, they progressed to the knockout stages.
Yet the disappointing manner of their elimination against Germany undoubtedly left a bitter aftertaste in many mouths. Sweden have not won a knockout match in any major tournament since their semi-final run at USA 94 but unlike previous narrow second-round defeats, they simply did not get started in Munich, falling two goals behind inside 12 minutes. "We were far too passive at the start, we were second to every ball," lamented Lagerback.
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It was not the first time they had started poorly against England, they were outplayed in the first period and went into the interval trailing 1-0 but unlike then they simply could not raise themselves to even hint at a comeback against the hosts.
The consequence of this limp exit was a wave of speculation about Lagerback's future as Sweden coach. Newspaper polls the day after the Germany defeat called for him to go but the coach responded: "I have a contract until 2008 and have not had any other thoughts."
Questions have also been asked about the futures of some of the squad's older players. Veteran defender Teddy Lucic has hinted that, at 33, he might have played his last game for Sweden. Given he turns 35 in September, it is also possible we may have seen Henrik Larsson's final appearance at a major tournament.
"An epic ends" was the headline of one story on Larsson in the popular Aftonbladet newspaper in the aftermath of the Germany defeat, although the striker himself, who came out of international retirement for EURO 2004, has previously insisted he will continue to play for his country for as long as his services are required.
Larsson scored his 36th goal for Sweden to salvage a point in the 2-2 draw with England . In the process became only the fourth player in FIFA World Cup history to have scored in separate tournaments 12 years apart, alongside Pele, Uwe Seeler and Sami Al Jaber. (In the same game Marcus Allback created his own piece of history by heading the FIFA World Cup's 2,000th goal.)
Otherwise, Larsson and strike partner Zlatan Ibrahimovic failed to find the net in Germany. With Ibrahimovic struggling for form and fitness, and Larsson missing a penalty against the Germans, it was a disappointing campaign overall for the Swedes' famous front pair.
With their two main strikers misfiring, goals did not come easily for a Swedish squad lacking the flair players other countries can call on. The goalless draw with Trinidad and Tobago in their opening game was a case in point and they also did things the hard way in their two remaining Group B fixtures.
It took an 88th-minute header from Freddie Ljungberg one of their more impressive performers in Germany to break the deadlock against Paraguay in their second outing and against England they were overrun in the first half before battling back after the break.
Sweden's typically impressive fitness meant they finished games strongly and the second 45 minutes of the England match in Cologne were the best we saw of Lagerback's side. Tobias Linderoth and Kim Kallstrom wreaked havoc in the England defence with their dead-ball deliveries and that display not only preserved a 38-year unbeaten record against the English but also ensured they entered the Germany game quietly confident.
If that confidence was soon shredded, the defeat in Munich did provide one positive: the excellence of Andreas Isaksson between the posts. The Rennes-based goalkeeper made some superb saves to keep the score down and the 24-year-old's efforts lent weight to former Sweden keeper Thomas Ravelli's pre-finals prediction that "in a couple of years, he will be considered as being one of the world's best goalkeepers".
At the other end of the age scale, Niclas Alexandersson, ten years Isaksson's senior, earned positive reports for his efforts in an unfamiliar right-back role. Alexandersson, like certain others, is unlikely to grace another major tournament. But it seems fairly certain the steady Swedes will be back before too long.