Sweden

Road to the finals

Sweden have long been a feature of major international competitions and Euro 2008 proved no different, as ‘The Blueyellow’ confidently booked their flights to Austria and Switzerland. However, with a tough group containing Denmark, Northern Ireland, Latvia, Iceland and Liechtenstein, there were more than a few challenges along the way and stars like Freddie Ljungberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic needed to be on top form.

Lars Lagerback’s troops started their qualification campaign with a suitably tricky away day against Latvia in Riga and only came through courtesy of Kim Kallstrom’s solitary goal. This shaky beginning continued against group minnows Liechtenstein as, despite taking the three points, a 3-1 scoreline against such opponents hardly reflected the gap in quality.

Indeed, it was only when the challenge was at its greatest that the Swedes truly kicked into gear. Coming up against group favourites Spain in Solna, the underdogs produced a spectacular showing to take the game 2-0 with goals from John Elmander and Marcus Allback. This was quickly followed by another victory, this time at the expense of Iceland, having overturned a one goal deficit thanks to Kim Kallstrom and a winner from Christian Wilhelmsson.

However, although qualification was certainly on the cards, there was also time for a blip or two. After the euphoria of Spain, the Swedes were brought back down to earth by Northern Ireland, with the prolific David Healy banging in two goals to seal victory. After despair in Belfast came massive controversy in Copenhagen when the Blueyellow came up against rivals Denmark. The match had been an exhilarating encounter, with Denmark overturning a 3-0 deficit in incredible fashion. A draw seemed on the cards until, in the 89th minute, referee Herbert Fandel awarded the Swedes a penalty after Christian Poulsen sensationally punched Markus Rosenerg in the stomach. Enraged by the decision a Danish supporter ran onto the pitch and attacked the official. The match was abandoned and UEFA awarded the game to Sweden 3-0, putting them back on track but in bizarre circumstances.

The win proved decisive, as success followed success. Solna again proved a happy hunting ground with Iceland receiving a 5-0 thumping, and the return fixture against Denmark saw the Swedes secure a valuable point. An easy victory against Liechtenstein and another draw against Northern Ireland set up qualification and, despite falling foul of Spain 3-0, they secured their place in the finals by beating Latvia 2-1.

Manager

A model of consistency, Lars Lagerback has been a feature of the national team for over a decade now. Starting as an assistant to former incumbent Tommy Soderberg in 1997, he quickly made an impression and was eventually promoted to joint coach alongside Soderberg in 2000.

The pair continued Sweden’s pedigree in qualifying for major tournaments, securing spots at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 finals. A change was then made, with Soderberg opting to take over the under-21 side and Lagerback taking complete control of the full international squad. The transition was a smooth one, as Lagerback steered the team to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but a disappointing performance in the competition saw pressure on the coach to keep his job. This culminated with Lagerback’s announcement that Euro 2008 would be his final competition with the national side and, although he has since extended his contract by two years, another frustrating campaign could see the end of an era.

Three to watch

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

As per usual, all eyes will be on the gangly yet graceful striker in Austria and Switzerland and, having enjoyed an outstanding season with his club Inter, Ibrahimovic is well prepared to prove his critics wrong and perform on the biggest stage. The son of Bosnian immigrants, Ibrahimovic was born in Malmo and started with the hometown club. Never one to stay in the same place for long, he moved to the Netherlands with Ajax Amsterdan in 2001 and announced himself to the world, notching 32 goals in 73 appearances and proving a vital part of the club’s Eredivisie victory in 2001/2002.

Ibrahimovic’s time with Ajax ended in remarkable fashion as, after injuring teammate Rafael van der Vaart in a friendly against the Netherlands, allegations he intended the outcome led to a move to Italian giants Juventus. His time there was no less tumultuous, as Zlatan proved a divisive figure, never really justifying his 19 million euro transfer fee but helping the club to two titles (which would later be revoked due to the Calciopoli scandal in 2006).

Having moved to current club Inter after the scandal broke, he again proved crucial to another Serie A title victory and has enjoyed another excellent campaign with the club in 2007/2008. Whether he can translate this form to the international arena will have to be seen.

Johan Elmander

Now entering the prime of his career, Johan Elmander has also gone some way to realising his talent in time for Euro 2008. Starting in Sweden with Holmalunds IF in 1997 and moving to Orgryte LS for the 1999/2000 season, he eventually worked his way to the Netherlands with Feyenoord. Although remaining for 4 years with the Dutch club, Elmander’s time there was not fruitful, only playing 39 times and being loaned to Djurgarden in Sweden and NAC Breda in Holland.

Eventually he returned to Sweden permanently with Brondby IF and began to find his touch, knocking 22 goals in for the club in two seasons. A move to France beckoned with Toulouse in 2006 and Elmander continued to improve, helping the club qualify for the Champions League. Having been a part of the national side in 2002, he has become an important part of the squad since joining Toulouse and scored some crucial goals during the qualifying stages. Keep an eye out for him in the finals.

Christian Wilhelmsson

A talented midfielder renowned for his surprising turn of pace, Wilhelmsson has established himself as the creative heart of the Swedish side, despite never really establishing himself to the same extent at club level. Starting his career in 1997 with Mjallby AIF and remaining in Scandinavia until 2003 when he departed for Anderlecht in Belgium, he only joined Europe’s big leagues recently when he signed for Nantes in 2006.

Quickly impressing the Nantes faithful, he was surprisingly taken on by Italian giants AS Roma in the 2007 January transfer window with an option to buy permanently. However, Roma declined to secure his services. Nantes then made him available to Bolton Wanderers for a period but, again, he failed to sufficiently impress and returned to France. Now on loan in Spain with Deportivo La Coruna, Wilhelmsson has made more of an impact, but Euro 2008 still represents the perfect opportunity to put himself in the shop window.

Win or lose?

Although consistently involved in major tournaments, Sweden have never seriously threatened to take the trophy and this is reflected in the odds. William Hill place them at 28/1, while Ladbrokes and 888 Sport quote 25/1.