Euro 2016 – Sweden

Sweden will be one of two Scandinavian representatives alongside Iceland after qualifying via the play-offs for Euro 2016 in France. The team, led by Zlatan Ibrahimović were somewhat fortunate to make the finals after a stuttering campaign which culminated with a play-off victory over rivals Denmark over two legs.

Sweden will be hoping for a better performance than in their last two Euros where they have exited the tournament at the group stages after just one win at both Euro 2008 and 2012. That said, they have been handed a tough group alongside Belgium, Italy and the Republic of Ireland.

We decided to catch up with Ben Cullimore who runs the Norse Network for a Q&A session regarding the team’s chances this summer.

Sweden struggled somewhat in qualifying having to go through the play-offs. What do you think of the team’s chances in Euro 2016?

It was certainly a mixed qualifying campaign for Sweden, who comfortably saw off the minnows in their group (Moldova, Liechtenstein, and Montenegro) but struggled against Austria and Russia, the two teams that finished ahead of them in the automatic qualification places. Whilst they did hold both to draws in their first meetings, they were beaten by them later on and, as a result, failed to find a way past second-place Russia.

This has been the case for quite some time with Sweden, as they seem comfortably able to swot aside smaller teams but tend to struggle against the “big boys”. The play-off victory against Denmark was an important and impressive win, but the famous 4-2 victory against England way back in 2012 was arguably the last time that they beat one of Europe’s finest. This doesn’t bode well for their tournament chances, as they were arguably placed in one of the toughest groups and will have to face the Republic of Ireland, Belgium, and Italy.

Whilst the Azzurri have been far from their best in recent games, it’s difficult to see how Sweden can battle their way past both them and Belgium, the latter of whom are surely favourites to top the group. However, the younger members of the squad, several of whom featured in last year’s European U-21 Championship win, have shown great fight and determination when given the chance to impress, and they could prove to be the difference in France this summer.

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What did it mean for the Swedish in beating their Scandinavian rivals Denmark 4-3 on aggregate in the play-offs? How did the Danish react to the defeat?

It’s safe to say that beating Denmark was a huge deal for Sweden. The rivalry between the two sides is arguably the most intense of all the Scandinavian nations, although it has cooled somewhat in recent years. Originally it was a far more violent affair, as they often fought for land and regional supremacy, and between 1521 and 1814 they were involved in 11 wars with one another. Luckily, the rivalry between the two has largely been contained to the football pitch over the last two hundred years, and in many ways they now view one another as a sibling that they constantly want to better.

Meetings between the two haven’t been without incident, however, and tempers have been known to flare on several occasions. The most notorious example of this was in a European Championship qualifier in 2007, when Denmark’s Christian Poulsen punched Sweden striker Markus Rosenberg in the stomach and gave away a last-minute penalty. A Danish supporter then ran onto the pitch and tried to attack the referee but was luckily stopped before he could do so. Nevertheless, the game was abandoned and Sweden were awarded a 3-0 win, one that would eventually result in them qualifying for the tournament whilst their rivals were eliminated.

Since then, meetings between the two have been largely peaceful, albeit intense, affairs, and, before last year’s play-offs, ones that were dominated by the Danish. Aside from the win gained from the abandoned game, Sweden hadn’t previously beaten Denmark since 2000, which made this victory an even bigger one than it already was. In the run-up, Denmark seemed pretty confident about their chances of winning, and they had even started airing television adverts that poked fun at various Swedish traditions, not to mention Zlatan Ibrahimović.

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I think for many in Denmark, the defeat indicated that a change needed to be made. Morten Olsen had already announced that he was going to step down as head coach after Euro 2016, but failing to reach the tournament, and at the hands of their bitter rivals, was a hard pill to swallow. They hadn’t looked convincing during the group stage and finished two points behind Albania, something that really frustrated those at home, particularly in the media. Sweden’s victory would prove to be the final nail in Olsen’s coffin, which no doubt filled them with even more joy!

Who were the stand-out performers during the qualifying process? Who will the key players be in the summer?

It’s an easy answer to give, I know, but you can’t look past Ibrahimović when talking about key performers for Sweden. The Paris Saint-Germain striker remains such an important player for them, and time and time again he’s proven to be the difference between success and failure. 11 of the 19 goals they scored on the way to France came from him, and a magical display against Denmark in the second play-off game was what confirmed their place in the tournament. Sweden have been blessed with several wonderful players over the years, but 62 goals in 112 national team appearances is a record that won’t be beaten anytime soon.

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Marcus Berg has been bagging himself plenty of goals for Panathinaikos this season, and he has also looked bright playing alongside Ibrahimović up front for the national team, whilst Emil Forsberg has been equally impressive out on the left wing. Erkan Zengin has also performed well when given the nod ahead of Forsberg, so it’s going to be interesting to see who Erik Hamrén starts with in France.

There’s a similar battle happening on the right, where Jimmy Durmaz and Sebastian Larsson have both featured and looked solid. Who Hamrén plays in the summer will largely be decided by how attack-minded he wants to be, as Durmaz is a more natural winger whilst Larsson offers more defensive stability, which could result in him getting the nod over the Olympiakos player.

What kind of tactics do you expect head coach Erik Hamrén to use in the finals? Do Sweden have a more attacking or defensive mind-set?

Under Hamrén, Sweden have certainly adopted a much more defensive mind-set in recent years, often as a way to deal with the fact that, whilst boasting several exciting talents, the current Sweden squad isn’t as a strong as it used to be. Throughout the qualifying campaign they utilised a well-organised 4-4-2 system that resulted in them looking far more defensively stable as time wore on. They tend to sit back and concentrate on defending before trying to hit opponents on the counter-attack, but one area that has left them worried is set-pieces, as they have struggled when trying to deal with them defensively and, as a result, it is a weakness that several sides have now started to exploit, often with success.

Are there any potential star players coming through the youth ranks and any that could possibly be in with a shout of making the squad?

Arguably the biggest young talent at the moment is Oscar Hiljemark, who guided the U21 team to success in last year’s European Championship before earning a well-deserved move to Palermo. Since making his senior debut in 2012, he has gone on to feature in seven games for the national team and most recently played for 45 minutes in their 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic last month. Despite only being 23 years old, he was part of an impressive Elfsborg side that won the 2012 Allsvenskan title, and he has been a bright spark in the heart of the Palermo midfield so far this season.

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Oscar Lewicki, another member of the successful U21 team, has featured alongside the experienced Kim Källstrom in several games recently (most notably in both of the play-off clashes), and so far he has been given the nod over Hiljemark, although they could end up sharing the duties in France.

Berg’s biggest threat to his spot alongside Ibrahimović is young striker John Guidetti, an incredibly exciting talent who is finally showing the world just how good he really is. Whilst largely playing second fiddle to Iago Aspas for Celta Vigo this season, he has now firmly put behind him memories of a terrible virus and knee injury that limited his playing time between 2012 and 2014. He scored his first senior international goal against Moldova last October and featured in both of Sweden’s most recent friendlies, so it looks as if he is firmly in Hamrén’s mind as the boss weighs up his options for France.

What is the state of domestic football? Is Allsvenskan the best of the Scandinavian leagues?

Allsvenskan is currently the highest ranked league in Scandinavia based on UEFA’s coefficients, which places it marginally ahead of Norway and just behind Belarus. This has certainly been helped by Malmö, who, despite failing to win the league for a third time in a row last season, are arguably the strongest club team in Scandinavia. This season they gained notoriety for knocking Celtic out of the Champions League to make it to the group stage for the second consecutive time, and they then went on to pick up a memorable win against Shakhtar Donetsk, arguably their biggest since the heydays of the late 1980s.

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In previous years, an exodus of talented Swedish players had caused problems for Allsvenskan, whilst several unsavoury incidents involving violence inside stadiums also had an impact both on and off the pitch. However, over the past few years an increasing number of interesting and exciting players, both from Sweden and abroad, have turned to Allsvenskan, with Malmö arguably leading the way. Norway internationals Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Jo Inge Berget both ply their trade at the club, whilst Viðar Örn Kjartansson, Kári Árnason, and, most notably, Markus Rosenberg are also members of a strong and impressive team. Of all the regulars in the national team, only Lewicki – who also plays for Malmö – is currently playing in Allsvenskan, although Emil Salomonsson and Emir Kujović (of Göteborg and Norrköping, respectively) featured in recent friendlies and both have a chance of making Hamrén’s 23-man Euro 2016 squad.

Allsvenskan has also acted as an effective proving ground for young talent, as many are given chances early on and have the opportunity to become regular starters for their respective teams. This has made the league all the more interesting as the likes of Hiljemark, Lewicki, and 19-year-old Göteborg striker Gustav Engvall have all at one time or another been stand-out performers for their clubs.

However, as has been the case in all of the Scandinavian leagues, as soon as a youngster shows some promise, it’s not long before they’re plucked from their home country by a powerful foreign club, resulting in Allsvenskan sometimes finding it difficult to hold on to talented individuals.

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