By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Drawn in a qualifying group with France and Netherlands and then pitted against Italy in a playoff, few would have tipped Sweden to make it to the World Cup finals but the Scandinavians are full of surprises and there may be more to come in Russia.
Janne Andersson’s side pipped Netherlands to second spot in qualifying Group A and then ground out a 1-0 aggregate playoff win to knock out the Italians, and they will now face South Korea, Germany and Mexico in Group F at the finals.
Missing through all this was talismanic striker and all-time Swedish top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who retired from international football after the 2016 European Championship.
Though the Ibra era provided plenty of spectacular goals and outrageous sound bites, there was less in the way of World Cup success, and the Swedes missed out on both the 2010 and 2014 finals.
Following the departure of Ibra and coach Erik Hamren from the international stage, Andersson has refashioned the side according to fundamentals of the country’s footballing heritage.
He has emphasised the hard work and collective spirit that saw the nation of 10 million come second to Brazil when they hosted the World Cup in 1958, and third at USA ’94.
Andersson’s team conceded nine goals in their 10 qualifiers before the Italy playoff but scored 26, eight more than group winners France.
They are well-drilled in defence, quick to retreat and form a compact barrier in front of goal and, with the fleet-footed Emil Forsberg on the wing, they are capable of hitting teams rapidly on the break.
Though happy to knock the ball forward quickly, they are by no means a traditional long-ball team, and Andersson has no problem with his side holding possession and probing patiently for openings on the edge of the opposition penalty area.
Key for the Swedes will be the form of Forsberg and the return of rangy goalkeeper Robin Olsen, who has promised to sacrifice “blood, sweat and tears” to recover from a shoulder injury in time.
Though they will be without the towering figure of Ibrahimovic, there is enough guile both in the squad and in the dugout to ensure more than a few Swedish surprises in Russia.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Ian Ransom)