Sweden bouncing back
© AFP

Sweden's main aim this year is to make it three in a row in terms of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™, and the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking definitely has them on course to so do. Lars Lagerback's men shot up six places in February to 25th and continue to bounce back from their lowest ever placing of 32nd in December 2008.

After falling at the first hurdle in last year's UEFA European Championships, the Swedes want to put that disappointment behind them on the road to South Africa. They have played two friendlies so far this year against higher-ranked opposition, taking on USA (20th) and Mexico (24th) in January. Sweden had mixed fortunes against their CONCACAF opponents, going down 3-2 to USA before squeezing past Mexico 1-0 thanks to a 58th-minute strike from Alexander Farnerud.

Unbeaten in qualifiers so far

After a third friendly in as many weeks, this time against Austria, Sweden will get down to more serious business at the end of March when they face group favourites Portugal in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. The Tre Kronor are currently next to bottom in Group 1, but have a game in hand on most teams, as do group leaders Denmark (with 7 points). Hungary (7 points) Portugal (5) and Albania (5) follow with Malta yet to get off the mark. A win for Sweden would keep them unbeaten and leave them heading the group with eight points.

If they are to take all three points from their trip to Porto to take on the UEFA EURO 2004 runners-up, the Swedes will have to be more ruthless in front of goal. Two of their three matches so far have ended in goalless draws; away to Albania and at home to Portugal, although Kim Kallstrom and Samuel Holmen did find the net in their 2-1 home win over Hungary. Against Portugal this time around however, they will have to make do without Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the star striker will be sitting out a one-match ban.

We need to know our players inside and out and you can only do that with time. When we get together, everyone knows what they can expect from the others.
Sweden coach Lars Lagerback on his squad.

The onus will therefore be on coach Lagerback to conjure up a system which provides more firepower up front. The 60-year-old has been at the helm for over a decade now, and since 2000 he has led his country to almost all the major tournaments, including reaching the last 16 of the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups. He also took Sweden to three consecutive European Championships, making the quarter-finals in 2004 when they lost on penalties to the Netherlands. "I love this job and I'm still thoroughly enjoying it," Lagerback says.

The coach came in for some criticism when the team made an early exit from EURO 2008, and it led Lagerback to make some changes. Having relied on experienced heads for much of his tenure, he decided to give the likes of Kallstrom and Sebastian Larsson more responsibility and blood debutants such as Holmen and Oscar Wendt. With the team currently unbeaten in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, this decision has been borne out.

Blend of youth and experience
With seasoned internationals like Olof Mellberg, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Andreas Isaksson to complement the new intake, Lagerback seems to have found the right blend of youth and experience to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, in what could turn out to be the coach's last hurrah. Lagerback's contract was extended before last year's EURO to take him through to South Africa 2010, meaning that he will have worked for the Swedish Football Association for 20 years, having started as a youth coach in 1990 before rising to become Tommy Soderberg's assistant in 1997.

"Continuity is just as important for national teams as it is for clubs, if not more important," says Lagerback when asked about his longevity. "We need to know our players inside and out and you can only do that with time. When we get together, everyone knows what they can expect from the others." Perhaps this continuity will be what enables Katrineholm-born Lagerback to steer Sweden to South Africa and who knows, maybe a third consecutive trip to the knockout stages.