Sweden’s noisy, colourful and always good-natured travelling fans have become a star attraction and near-permanent fixture at FIFA World Cup™ finals in recent years. However, disappointment threatens this time round, as the Tre Kronors are in imminent danger of missing out on next year’s global showdown in South Africa. To avert the looming danger, Sweden urgently need to turn the corner on Saturday and chalk up a much-needed victory.
The pressure is immense. In their four 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers so far, coach Lars Lagerback’s underperforming team have mustered just one win and three goalless draws, leaving them with a mountain to climb in European qualifying Group 1. Leaders Denmark have played a game more, but are already fully seven points clear at the top. Lagerback and his men now face a final of sorts, as they entertain their high-flying northern neighbours at home in Solna.
Hopes rest on Larsson and Ibrahimovic
In anyone's book, anything less than victory would be a damaging setback to the Swedes' hopes of a third FIFA World Cup finals appearance on the spin. The situation is made even more grave by the fact that rivals Portugal have a winnable fixture away to second-from-bottom Albania. The Portguese, equally disappointing in qualifying so far and level with Sweden on points after goalless stalemates in the direct meetings between the countries, thus enjoy a golden opportunity to make up ground. The task facing the Swedes looks far more challenging on paper, as Denmark are one of the surprise packages in qualifying to date with four wins and a draw from their five matches.
The Swedes are going through a form crisis right now, as evidenced by a 2-0 friendly defeat away to Serbia in early April. As so often, hopes rest squarely on veteran skipper Henrik Larsson, now in the autumn of his career at 37 but a leader of proven quality, and on the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic, tasked with supplying the moments of inspiration to help overcome the Danes and set the Swedes back on track. The 27-year-old Inter Milan marksman travels to Solna on a high after finishing top scorer in Italy’s Serie A this season.
Lagerback seeks winning formula
"I certainly have the impression that Sweden command considerably more respect around the world than was the case when I took over nine years ago,” Lagerback said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "I think we used to be seen as physically strong, well-organised, and not much else. These really aren’t attributes we need be ashamed of, but I do believe we’ve come on as a group too."
However, the tried-and-trusted old formula may be exactly what is required of the nation currently lying 33rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. As is almost always the case when Scandinavian neighbours clash, iron resolve and fighting spirit will tend to make the difference. This truism will certainly not have escaped Lagerback, who is no longer considered above criticism at home. Sweden undoubtedly boast the necessary potential, but is the 60-year-old still the right man to light the flames of passion? Or will the explosion on Saturday be caused by Danish dynamite?
Everyone will be wiser after the match in Solna, arguably the biggest flashpoint of the weekend in European FIFA World Cup qualifying. Will there be another yellow-and-blue party in South Africa next year? A glance at the expressions on Swedish faces late on Saturday night will provide an accurate gauge of that.