By Philip O'Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden manager Jan Andersson and his players have stunned pundits at home by overcoming some sizeable hurdles to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, beating Italy in a thrilling playoff to make it to the finals for the first time since 2006.
When Andersson replaced Erik Hamren after a disappointing Euro 2016 exit at the group stage, few expected him to be able to turn around the Swedish ship so quickly, especially given the number of players who quit the team.
With a total of 380 caps between them, captain and record goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson and midfielder Kim Kallstrom all left the international stage, robbing the team of their valuable experience.
Pitted against France and Netherlands in Group A, Andersson went to work, creating a compact, hard-working team that set about collecting enough points to edge out the Dutch and come second in the group, beating France at home along the way.
The 1-0 aggregate win against four-times world champions Italy was the high point so far for Andersson, his tactically-astute gameplan perfectly executed by a squad lacking household names but with plenty of heart.
In Ibrahimovic's absence, RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg has inherited the number 10 shirt and shouldered much of the creative burden, scoring four goals in qualifying.
The win over Italy put the 1958 hosts and runners-up in the finals for the 12th time and their performances in qualifying have shown that they will be one of the tougher teams in Pot 3.
Andersson will have to deal with the thorny issue of a possible return for the 36-year-old Ibrahimovic, who is still a potent threat but not well-suited to his coach's ideal of a selfless collective.
Regardless of whether he returns or not, the Swedes have shown in qualifying that they will not be afraid of a tough draw.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)