The big talking point in Sweden’s Euro 2020 build-up was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s triumphant return from retirement in January, followed swiftly by his withdrawal from the tournament in May due to injury. It may seem like a major blow, but spirits have not been dampened and if anything there is a sense that this squad might be better off without his unique blend of talent and narcissism.
The Zlatan-Sweden story has been a one-man saga for several years now. After their run to the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup without him, it seemed like the national team had finally moved on. Then last year the striker publicly criticised manager Janne Andersson over team selection, pouring water on any comeback, yet rumours soon began to swirl and he announced his shock return in typically understated fashion: “The return of the God.”
It was a surprising and potentially undermining decision by Andersson to welcome Ibrahimovic back: the beauty of Sweden’s 2018 team was that there was no egotism, no superstar, no individualist. The team was moulded in its captain’s image: Andreas Granqvist may now be 36 but he still embodies their battle-hardened ethos of teamwork and unity that has proved reliable.
That is not to say there is no technical talent in the squad: RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg provides midfield spark alongside midfield ball-player Sebastian Larsson, while the emergence of Juventus winger Dejan Kulusevski heralds what Swedes hope will be a more front-foot approach that relies less on low-block defence and counter-attack than they have in the past.
There is now a blend of experience and promise, although the reality is that their World Cup exploits will not be easy to repeat. A chastening experience in last year’s Nations League saw Sweden lose five of their six group games, and the gulf in class showed against France and Portugal in particular. More recent World Cup qualifying wins over Georgia and Kosovo restored a little confidence but there is the nagging sense that this team lacks goals – one thing Ibrahimovic provides in abundance.
It means much expectation falls on the shoulders of 21-year-old striker Alexander Isak, who has already racked up 20 international caps, scoring six goals. Should he carry on his impressive form for Real Sociedad, where he scored 17 La Liga goals this season, then Sweden will be a handful for any defence. Spain are the standout favourites for Group E, so Sweden’s battles with Slovakia and Poland will be fierce. Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof will play an important role in trying to keep Robert Lewandowski quiet in what could be a crunch final game against Poland in St Petersburg.
Ibrahimovic has called the team Zweden before as if he is the leading act and the rest are supporting artists, yet the irony is that Sweden have always been at their best when fostering a spirit of unity, a wall of blue and yellow that never gives in. Even the great USA 94 team, which dazzled through Martin Dahlin’s eye for goal and Tomas Brolin’s twinkling toes en route to the semi-finals, was built primarily on a determined mindset in the face of setbacks along the way. An Ibrahimovic-less Sweden might lack a little stardust, but there is the right mix of quality and experience in this squad to make a real impact on Euro 2020.
(All times BST)
Spain vs Sweden: Seville, 14 June, 8pm
Sweden vs Slovakia: St Petersburg, 19 June, 2pm
Sweden vs Poland: St Petersburg, 23 June, 5pm
Goalkeepers: Karl-Johan Johnsson (København), Kristoffer Nordfeldt (Gençlerbirliği), Robin Olsen (Everton).
Defenders: Emil Krafth (Newcastle United), Victor Lindelöf (Manchester United), Marcus Danielson (Dalian Yifang), Pierre Bengtsson (Vejle), Ludwig Augustinsson (Werder Bremen), Pontus Jansson (Brentford), Filip Helander (Rangers), Mikael Lustig (AIK), Andreas Granqvist (Helsingborg).
Midfielders: Emil Forsberg (Leipzig), Ken Sema (Watford), Viktor Claesson (Krasnodar), Dejan Kulusevski (Juventus), Sebastian Larsson (AIK), Albin Ekdal (Sampdoria), Kristoffer Olsson (Krasnodar), Jens-Lys Cajuste (Midtjylland), Mattias Svanberg (Bologna), Gustav Svensson (Guangzhou).
Forwards: Marcus Berg (Krasnodar), Alexander Isak (Real Sociedad), Robin Quaison (Mainz), Jordan Larsson (Spartak Moskva).
Ones to watch
Star man: Victor Lindelof (Manchester United)
After enjoying a fine season for United, Lindelof comes into the tournament full of confidence and he will play a vital role in making Sweden hard to beat.
Breakout talent: Alexander Isak (Real Sociedad)
The 21-year-old striker is playing in his first major tournament and has the chance to display his enormous talent on the European stage for the first time.
Sweden to win Euro 2020: 80/1.
Sweden are not going to win Euro 2020 but they have enough quality to get out of the group, even if it means taking one of the third-placed spots through to the knockout stages. From there it is a difficult path to reach the latter rounds of the competition and will take something inspired to go deep. It’s possible, but expect Sweden to meet their match in the round of 16.
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