The RheinEnergie Stadion in Cologne is the venue for this evening’s final Group B game for England and Sweden at the 2006 World Cup Finals.
It will be the 24th meeting between the European qualifiers and for the Swedes in particular it is one of the most crucial.
England have already guaranteed their progress into the last sixteen via their unimpressive early wins against Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago. They will nevertheless be looking for a positive result to ensure that they enter the second round as group winners.
England’s Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson will be hoping to mastermind his team’s first win over Sweden since 1968 – England’s longest run without a win against any opposition. In the eleven meetings since that game, which includes a 1-1 draw in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, Sweden have won four of them and drawn seven. It will be Eriksson’s third attempt to defeat the team of his homeland. In addition to the clash in Saitama in 2002, Eriksson also oversaw a dull 1-1 draw with the Swedes at Old Trafford in 2001.
England’s form thus far at the finals has been greeted with much derision by fans and media alike, despite the fact that they have a 100% record and have yet to concede a goal. The press have failed to swallow the excuse used for their lacklustre performance in the 1-0 opening win over Paraguay, the hot weather, and they have widely criticised England’s hurried use of the long ball in the last-gasp 2-0 win over minnows Trinidad & Tobago. They enter this evening’s match under pressure to deliver the improved performance that their coach has promised would materialise as the competition progresses.
The absence of Liverpool’s 6 ft 7 in striker Peter Crouch from this evening’s starting line-up should ensure more measured and patient build-up play. The striker is an obvious target man for long ball tactics, but the blame for England’s over-reliance on him in the opening games must rest with the coach. Crouch, who finally broke the deadlock with an 83rd minute header in the match against Trinidad & Tobago, is one yellow card away from a suspension so he will be rested – enabling Eriksson to give some much-needed playing time to his recovering first-choice strike partnership, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen.
Rooney’s fitness had been the focus of intense speculation and debate in the run-up to the finals following the broken metatarsal he suffered at the end of April. His coach is relieved to have him fit enough to start the game, having unleashed him for his first piece of action since the end of April when he brought him on for the last half-hour against the ‘Soca Warriors’. Despite not looking anywhere near fit, England’s most gifted player immediately provided the link between midfield and forwards that had been so lacking without him. Eriksson will be hoping that he comes through an hour or so this evening without further injury, and that the playing time will make him all-the-sharper for the beginning of the knockout phase at the weekend.
The fitness and form of Rooney’s partner Michael Owen has been of equal concern. Owen missed almost six months of football after breaking his foot for Newcastle United on New Years Eve, and he has not looked the same player since his recent return. He has been withdrawn early in the second-half in both of England’s opening matches and is also struggling for match fitness. He should get a prolonged outing tonight, and will be looking to get better service now that Rooney is returned to the starting eleven.
“You would have thought that there won’t be so many long balls now that Wayne is back in the team,” Owen said on Sunday, in what was a veiled attack on his coach’s tactics.
“We haven’t played well so far. If we do play well as a team I will look as good as ever. I’ve got a lot of self-belief but you haven’t seen it because we’re not firing on all cylinders. I’m the person who takes the brunt of the criticism because I’m the furthest forward.”
With midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard both on yellow cards Eriksson has promised changes to his midfield. Bayern Munich’s Owen Hargreaves, the focus of much criticism from England fans who have rarely seen him play in his favoured position, is likely to replace Gerrard and play as the holding midfield player tonight. This will release Lampard from the defensive duties that he has been forced to share with Gerrard in England’s last few games and it will mean he can play his natural attacking game – something he has excelled at for his club Chelsea in the last three seasons.
Elsewhere England will be unchanged, with Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher continuing to deputise for the injured Gary Neville at right-back. Neville has made fairly good progress with the calf injury that kept him out of the Trinidad & Tobago game, but tonight’s match will come too soon and he will be saved for the knockout phase.
Eriksson is confident that, aided by their talisman’s return, England can produce the goods this evening and qualify from Group B as winners.
“England are a different team with Rooney because he is a fantastic player,” the coach said on Monday.
“He is perfect in everything when he is 100% fit but, as a linking player, he keeps the ball and gives the team time to come out. Sooner or later we will beat Sweden and I am confident that I will be the coach who does it.”
The outcome of tonight’s match is far more crucial to Sweden, who have yet to secure their passage through to the second round. A heavy defeat by England and a win for Trinidad & Tobago against Paraguay in the group’s other match could lead to an early exit for the Swedes, who have been wholly unimpressive so far in 2006. Freddie Ljungberg’s late goal in the win over Paraguay earned Sweden their first victory of the year and only their third goal of 2006. Their problems have been compounded by the fact that they will probably go into this evening’s crucial game without their star striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is struggling with a groin strain.
Despite their poor form the Swedish camp remain bullish of their prospects of achieving the result they need to secure their safe passage to round two. Several of their squad have experience of English domestic football, and there are several surviving members of their two matches against England in the Eriksson era.
“It’s hard top put your finger on why we haven’t lost to England for so long,” ex Everton midfielder Niclas Alexandersson told the press on Monday.
“It’s probably a combination of things. We know their football well as many of our players have played in England, and English matches are always shown on television in Sweden. We also always enter these games as the underdogs because they are considered to be better than us. This has enabled us to play without pressure. Tonight will be a little bit different as it is us who need to get a result but we are confident as always.”
Sweden coach Lars Lagerback concurred with Alexandersson and revealed that he was expecting a difficult but defensive encounter tonight.
“My theory as to why they have not beaten us for such a long time is that we have always had a lot of players in the Premiership,” he said.
“We know English players well, we know their mentality and their way of playing. England are always a tough team to play against as they have quality in all positions. We will try to stick to our own way of playing and defend as much as we can. When you play at this level with so much at stake you cannot attack as much as you’d like.”
Lagerback will delay making an announcement on Ibrahimovic’s fitness until as late as possible, but it is almost certain that he will not play. His half-time replacement from the Paraguay match, former Aston Villa striker Marcus Allback, is widely tipped to step in and partner the iconic Henrik Larsson up front. Elsewhere Sweden are likely to be unchanged, with Rennes midfielder Kim Kallstrom likely to keep his place ahead of Anders Svensson. Kallstrom’s impressive performance against Paraguay made Lagerback’s unpopular decision to leave him out of the opening match all the more baffling to the Swedish media.
“Our confidence is high,” Lagerback said of his players.
“It’s difficult to say what other teams will do, but I am guessing that England will play very hard to win the game. It will be difficult for us but we believe that we can progress. For us one point is enough, but we firstly have to control the match.”
By Mark Robinson
England: Robinson; Carragher, Terry, Ferdinand, A Cole; Beckham, Hargreaves, Lampard, J Cole; Owen, Rooney
Sweden: Isaksson; Linderoth, Mellberg, Lucic, Edman; Ljungberg, Alexandersson, Kallstrom, Wilhelmsson; Allback, Larsson
Referee: Massimo Busacca (Switzerland)