By Mark Robinson
The 98th encounter between Scandinavian rivals Sweden and Denmark takes place at the Estadio do Bessa in Porto this evening, with qualification from Euro 2004 Group C still to be secured by either side.
Both teams can still advance into the quarter-finals, but if Italy defeat Bulgaria in the group’s other match in Guimaraes tonight then the odds are stacked heavily in favour of one of the Nordic rivals returning home prematurely.
An Italian victory would mean that only a high scoring draw of 2-2 or greater will ensure the safe passage of Denmark and Sweden tonight, a scenario that would leave Italy’s championship dreams in tatters. However, with a high scoring draw only a remote possibility, both teams will be eager to take all three points from tonight’s game to ensure that the result in Guimaraes has no bearing on their own position.
Despite the high number of international contests, there have only been two competitive matches between Denmark and Sweden. The only one in the last 50 years took place at Euro 92, when hosts Sweden inflicted the only blemish on Denmark’s championship winning campaign via a 1-0 victory.
Staff and players from both sides have been keen to inform the media of their desire to win tonight’s match. The build up to the match has seen the Italian media suggest that the 2-2 draw required for both teams to progress will somehow be engineered, but it is a view that has been totally refuted by both sides.
“We are honest people, and both teams will go out looking to win the match. It’s a ridiculous things to say,” Danish coach Morten Olsen said of the conspiracy theories.
Sweden’s joint coach Tommy Soderberg agrees with Olsen’s assessment.
“We will not make a deal with Denmark, I will say it yet again,” he replied angrily to the suggestions.
“For both teams it’s about passion and dignity – about playing a good game and being proud.”
In a very tight group, which may even see UEFAs coefficients being used to separate the three teams, Sweden have the slight advantage. Any kind of draw for the Swedes tonight will be enough, while it is the Danes who need the high scoring draw should Italy win by at least two goals this evening.
Joint coaches Soderberg and Lars Lagerback have been emphasising the need for their team to get off to a better start in tonight’s game, having begun both Group C games so far in a rather pedestrian fashion. Bulgaria caused Sweden numerous problems in the opening phase of the opening match, while Italy dominated the first half of their encounter on Friday night.
Sweden managed to lift themselves in both games to take points from each one but, with Denmark expected to come out attacking this evening, Lagerback has insisted that his team must start better.
“If you look at the matches we’ve played so far it has taken us too long to get into the game. We can’t afford to do that this evening in such a delicate situation,” he said.
Arsenal and Sweden midfielder Freddie Ljungberg was looking forward to meeting his country’s fiercest rivals as he spoke to the media on Monday but, like his coaches, was focussed on starting well.
“I am sure Denmark will attack and go for the win from the very start,” he predicted.
“So must we if we are to keep them at bay. I feel I am in good form and to meet Denmark will be extra special. There is a very strong rivalry between the nations – no doubt.”
The Swedes’ chief scout Benny Lennartsson also had words of warning for the Swedish players, this time addressing the Danish strengths rather than his own country’s weaknesses.
“From what I have seen scouting matches, Denmark are the best team in the group,” said Lennartsson.
“Morten Olsen has planned everything in detail. They will be very dangerous coming inside with Jorgensen and Gronkjaer and we will be very wary of their switch play, which is not typical of Nordic countries.”
“I have not seen any better wing play in the whole tournament,” he concluded.
Sweden have just one injury worry, with Teddy Lucic set to miss out in the back four for the second game in a row. Mikael Nilsson will continue to deputise at right back, meaning Christian Wilhelmsson will continue on the right side of midfield.
Everton midfielder Tobias Linderoth will watch tonight’s match from the sidelines, as the Swedish anchorman collected his second yellow card against the Italians on Friday. Johann Mjallby or Kim Kallstrom will take his place, with the noises coming out of the Swedish camp making the more creative Kallstrom the slight favourite. If Kallstrom does get the selection, then more defensive responsibility will rest on Anders Svensson’s shoulders.
Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will continue their budding partnership in attack, which has so far yielded four goals. Having spent much of the tournament heaping praise on the veteran Larsson, this week Lagerback has turned his attention to the young Ajax forward, scorer of Sweden’s dramatic 85th minute equaliser against the Italians on Friday night.
“Zlatan is a fantastic player,” said the coach.
“You never know what he is going to do, and the good news is that he’s only 22 and will get better and better.”
Denmark coach Morten Olsen’s only selection problem for tonight surrounds right winger Dennis Rommedahl, who had to be replaced in the first half during the 2-0 win over Bulgaria on Friday. Rommedahl may yet prove his fitness, but even in the event of his recovery it will be difficult for him to dislodge Jesper Gronkjaer, who scored an excellent goal after coming on for the PSV man in Braga.
The coach will therefore stick to his trusted, attack minded 4-2-3-1 formation, a system that has served the Danes so well in their opening matches. Their celebrated back four are the only team yet to concede a goal at the finals and there will be no changes in personnel in either defence or in goal, where Thomas Sorensen has enjoyed an excellent start to the tournament.
With Thomas Gravesen and Daniel Jensen also keeping their places as the holding midfield players, the Danish team has taken on a settled and experienced shape – particularly defensively. They will arguably provide as stern a test for the Swedish forwards as the Italians did on Friday night, which is high praise indeed.
Ebbe Sand of FC Schalke will continue as Denmark’s most advanced striker after he recovered from a knock to his shin sustained in the 2-0 win against Bulgaria. With Jon Dahl Tomasson and the quicksilver wingers Gronkjaer and Martin Jorgensen deployed just behind him, Sand is clearly relishing the prospect of playing the Swedes who he claims are inferior and can be beaten this evening.
“I really do not see that big a difference between Sweden and Bulgaria,” said Sand, despite Sweden’s 5-0 demolition of Bulgaria earlier in the competition.
“Man-for-man, I simply see us as the better team, and we are confident of victory.”
Olsen has continued with his policy of training behind closed doors in the run up to the game. Journalists have been banned from almost every Denmark training session at Euro 2004 and, with the decision showing benefits so far, he sees no reason to change it especially ahead of a crucial game against his country’s biggest rivals.
Olsen did elaborate on the differing styles between the two sides, however, before declaring that tactics would not be the only factor in deciding the outcome.
“The fact that Sweden play a different system to us, with two strikers, may make it easier in some ways for us but also harder in other ways,” he declared.
“But the key to victory is not always the tactical decisions and the system you play, but of the quality of the players who are playing it. We believe the quality of our players at this tournament is very high indeed.”
Former Ajax coach Olsen also identified Ibrahimovic as a potential danger, claiming his defence must continue to show their best form or risk coming unstuck against the young Ajax striker and Larsson.
“He is a great player,” Olsen said of Ibrahimovic.
“I have followed his progress with Ajax. He is still very young and, like all young players, he has ups and downs. Hopefully he will have a bad game against us, because if he doesn’t then our task will be that much more difficult.”
Denmark: Sorensen; Helveg, Laursen, Henriksen, N Jensen; Gravesen, D Jensen; Gronkjaer, Tomasson, Jorgensen; Sand
Sweden: Isaksson; Nilsson, Mellberg, Jakobsson, Edman; Wilhelmsson, Kallstrom, Svensson, Ljungberg; Larsson, Ibrahimovic
Referee: Markus Merk (Ger)