Euro 2012 Team Preview: Sweden


If they were a pop star they'd be...

Kings of Leon.

There’s talent there, and you know they have potential to create something interesting. But the end result is often a bit vanilla, their body of work is broadly underwhelming and they’ll probably leave you with a faint sense of disappointment.

Manager's pedigree

Erik Hamrén won the Danish league with Aalborg and back-to-back titles with the Norwegian giants Rosenborg, as well as the domestic cup in his native Sweden. This is his first tournament as national team coach, and he’s introduced a dynamic and fluent 4-2-3-1 formation that is a far cry from the somewhat stale fare produced under his predecessor Lars Lagerbäck. Sweden scored 31 goals in qualifying, more than anyone except Germany and Holland. This will be the most watchable Sweden side for years, and not just because their coach loves to rock a three-piece suit on the touchline.

Selection dilemmas

Kim Källström has locked down his place, but who will partner him in deep midfield in Hamrén’s 4-2-3-1: the veteran Anders Svensson, or the promising AZ Alkmaar player Rasmus Elm? Svensson has 126 caps and three major tournaments on his CV, but at 35 the tempo of international football might make a passenger of the former Southampton set-piece specialist.

There are worries about Johan Elmander, who could miss the opening game against Ukraine after suffering a broken metatarsal (sound familiar, England fans?). PSV’s Ola Toivonen would be the favourite to replace him as Zlatan Ibrahimović’s supporting actor.

Expectation/mood back home

A robust portion of realism with a side of optimism. Blågul fans have learned not to expect too much after two decades of the team qualifying and disappointing with equal regularity. After being drawn in a tough group with England, France and the host nation Ukraine, few in Sweden will be expecting progression to the quarter-finals. But most fans are just happy to see a little invention and swashbuckle from their side after the limpid adequacy of the Lagerbäck years. Anything beyond the first three games would be a bonus, but this time the journey matters more than the destination.

Main man

A lot depends on Kim Källström. Along with Germany’s Mesut Özil, the Lyon midfielder was the leading assist-maker in Europe during qualifying (they each set up seven goals). But it’s his mobility and defensive awareness that Sweden will need most in the next few weeks. Källström, still only 29 years old, has 91 caps and 50 European club games behind him, and he will need to call on every ounce of experience as he shields his defence against the likes of Karim Benzema, Franck Ribéry and, yes, Stewart Downing. If he’s partnered in midfield by a tournament novice such as Rasmus Elm or Pontus Wernbloom, an extra responsibility of organisation will rest on Källström’s shoulders.

Most likely to be top scorer

Zlatan Ibrahimović, though his role with the national team will look unfamiliar to Serie A fans. The Milan forward was top scorer in Italy last season, but often drops deep and out to the right for Sweden, allowing Johan Elmander to move further forward and creating space for the right-sided players Mikael Lustig and Sebastian Larsson. As well as scoring five goals, Zlatan dragged defenders out of position and made a huge contribution to Larsson’s total of six assists in ten qualifying matches. Ibrahimović is at 40.00 to be the top scorer at Euro 2012.

Most likely to get sent off

The defensive proto-Viking Olof Mellberg has eyes of flint and a beard you could lose a badger in. Legend says that he is descended from Norse gods, that his torso was hewn from granite and that he drinks mead from the skulls of his enemies. The statistics say that he was the only Swedish player to be sent off in a Euro 2012 qualifier. His duel with Andy Carroll will be a titanic and potentially apocalyptic tussle.

Three unknowns to keep an eye out for

A long-term injury to Daniel Majstorović means that Andreas Granqvist will probably partner Mellberg in central defence. The 27-year-old currently plays for Genoa, whose 2011-12 season is best left unmentioned, but he has developed into a stoic defender since his brief stint with Wigan Athletic and has been linked with a move to Milan this summer. Granqvist’s height will also make him a threat from set pieces – he scored in each of Sweden’s opening two qualifying games.

The Kosovo-born winger Emir Bajrami has just completed his second season in Holland with FC Twente, and is beginning to establish himself in the Sweden side. The 24-year-old is a slippery customer on either flank, but that versatility may count against him – Sebastian Larsson is the preferred option on the right, so Bajrami may have to slug it out with Christian Wilhelmsson and Tobias Hysén for a spot on the left.

Rasmus Elm, who helped modest Kalmar to a first-ever Swedish league title before a move to AZ in 2009, is staking his claim for a spot alongside Kim Källström in midfield. Elm’s goalscoring record in the Eredivisie is impressive – 29 goals in 81 games – but it was his less glamorous qualities that stood out in the recent friendly win over Iceland. Elm was crisp and astute in his hour on the pitch, always available to receive a pass and retain possession. Small wonder he has been linked with a move to Liverpool.

Prediction

So much depends on their opening game. The Blågult face the hosts Ukraine, whose fans will be in fearsome form in the renovated Olympiyskiy stadium in Kiev. If Sweden can stagger unscathed from that gauntlet then the prospect of facing France and England, both of whom are in a certain stage of transition, won’t look quite so daunting. Lose against the hosts, though, and they might as well start printing their boarding passes and changing their hryvnia back into kronor.

Getting out of the group would be an achievement, but if they manage that then they’ll probably be up against Spain or, if they’re lucky, Italy. The latter wouldn’t be so bad – Zlatan knows his way around an Italian defence, after all – but hopes of a first semi-final since 1992 will probably have to wait. But we can at least hope that, with Hamrén in charge, they’ll give us something to remember them by. Sweden to make it out of Group D at 2.70.