Under-pressure Sweden face a Paraguay team that won many admirers in their defeat by England in the second of Group B’s matches at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin this evening.
Following their unexpected draw with minnows Trinidad & Tobago on Saturday, Sweden need to win this evening and against England next week to ensure that they do not face in-form hosts Germany in the first knockout phase. Should they not secure all three points tonight, the possibility of an embarrassing first-round elimination will become very real indeed.
Paraguay recovered well from conceding a third-minute own goal against England in Frankfurt, and will feel slightly aggrieved that their second-half performance did not result in at least a draw. Should they beat or draw with the Swedes this evening, they will face their final group match next week against Trinidad & Tobago with a good chance of progressing to the second round for the fourth time.
Sweden enter this evening’s contest in the middle of one of the worst runs in their long and distinguished international history. They have yet to register a win so far in 2006, and the poor 0-0 draw with Trinidad & Tobago comes hot on the heels of equally lacklustre goal-less draws with Scandinavian rivals Finland and lowly Jordan. It is almost nine months since their last international victory, a 3-1 win over Iceland in qualifying.
Saturday’s shock result was followed by heated clash between skipper Olof Mellberg and attacking midfielder Freddie Ljungberg. The effect that this has on team morale, already at a low ebb, remains to be seen, but coach Lars Lagerback is hoping that it can be positive.
“I’m not unduly worried about it,” he said on Monday.
“It has cleared the air and if it has any effect at all it should be positive.”
Lagerback’s comments have been echoed by experienced defender Teddy Lucic.
“We all spoke about it the day after the game on Sunday,” he revealed.
“It’s behind us now. We have to focus on the Paraguay game and unite as a team. Sometimes a discussion is good. Hopefully we can take something positive from it.”
Sweden created plenty of opportunities against ten-man Trinidad & Tobago, but their failure to convert any of them is symptomatic of Sweden’s recent problems in front of goal. They have now gone 263 minutes without scoring, despite the presence of two of world football’s most recognised forwards, Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the prolific Ljungberg. At least one of these three will need to show more of their characteristic composure this evening to prevent Sweden’s World Cup bid coming off the rails.
One piece of good news for Lagaerback in the run up to the game has been the fitness of first choice goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, who has recovered from the concussion that kept him out of the opening match.
“Thankfully everyone has trained and is 100%,” the relieved coach stated yesterday.
“If you look back to the qualifiers last year you will see that Isaksson is a very good keeper and has always been our number one.”
One other change that Lagerback is widely tipped to make is the replacement of Anders Svensson by Kim Kallstrom in the centre of Sweden’s midfield. Kallstrom has long been tipped to become one of Sweden’s best players since his debut as an 18 year-old over five years ago. Last season he finally began to show consistency for his French club Rennes, and is likely to be given his chance ahead of the more defensive-minded Svensson this evening as Sweden look to end their goal drought and secure a win.
The importance and difficulty of the clash with Paraguay has not been lost on the players.
“Paraguay is very, very important for us,” said Lucic.
“We have to get at least a draw to keep our fate in our own hands, but I hope we win so the England match next week will be easier.”
Lucic’s Bundesliga experience will be crucial this evening, as he prepares to face Paraguay’s German-based strikers Nelson Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz.
“I played for a year and-a-half in Germany so I know quite a lot about them,” he told the press on Wednesday afternoon.
“Santa Cruz has been at Bayern Munich for a long time, so he is obviously a good player. He is very strong and good in the air. Valdez is different and is more of a threat with his feet. They complement each other well.”
A win for Paraguay this evening does not look as unlikely as it did a week ago, given their spirited second-half performance against England and Sweden’s problems. If they can achieve it they will become favourites to take the runners-up spot in Group B, provided England defeat Trinidad & Tobago as expected in the group’s earlier match. Even a draw may be enough for them to assume this mantle, as Sweden’s final group game against England looks more hazardous than their final clash with the ‘Soca Warriors’.
Play to our strengths
Their Uruguayan coach Anibal Ruiz is confident that his team can at least avoid defeat, and has been doing his best to transfer that confidence to his players.
“Sweden is one of the teams that we think are at the same level as us, and we can certainly beat them,” he predicted.
“We were too cautious against England in the first-half on Saturday and this time around we need to play to our own strengths and in our own style.”
Strikers Valdez and Santa Cruz are in full agreement with their coach.
“We are treating this match as a final, and if we win we can reach the next round without having to worry what the other teams do,” said Valdez.
“We will be changing our tactics and playing our more natural game of attacking, like we did against England in the second-half.”
Santa Cruz also spoke to the press on Wednesday, and spoke of the desire to be patient and concentrate on their own game plan.
“The worst thing that can happen to us is getting desperate if we haven’t scored an early goal,” he said.
“We have to keep calm, be aware of our own resources and not be thinking of our opponents all the time as we did against England.”
Ruiz will probably make three changes to his starting eleven this evening. Two of the changes have been forced upon him and the other will be an attacking, tactical-based decision to use either Nelson Cuevas or Salvador Cabanas in an advanced midfield role to support the strikers, at the probable expense of the more defensive-minded Carlos Bonet. The two forced changes will be the inclusion of Aldo Bobadilla in place of Justo Villar in goal, and the attack-minded Jorge Nunez in place of regular left-back Delio Toledo. Villar’s tournament appears to be over due to injury, while a slight thigh strain has ruled Toledo out of tonight’s encounter.
By Mark Robinson
Sweden: Isaksson, Nilsson, Mellberg, Lucic, Edman, Linderoth, Ljungberg, Wilhelmsson, Kallstrom, Ibrahimovic, Larsson.
Paraguay: Bobadilla, Caniza, Caceres, Gamarra, Nunez, Bonet, Acuna, Paredes, Riveros, Santa Cruz, Haedo Valdez.
Referee: Referee: Michel Lubos (Slovakia)