A new era dawns for Sweden, who will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic at a major tournament for the first time since Euro 2000.
Though Ibrahimovic had hinted that he would end his international retirement to play in Russia, the Swedish FA resisted pressure to recall their talismanic striker, which would have risked irking the players who had performed miracles to qualify for this summer’s finals.
Sweden’s is a workmanlike squad, devoid of any real star names – with the exception, perhaps, of Emil Forsberg – and reliant on a gameplan that makes them difficult to break down.
Progression to the round of 16 would seem a tall order for Sweden given their draw, but Fantasy managers might nevertheless wish to consider some squad-filling budget buys among the Swedish ranks.
Janne Andersson’s side kick off their World Cup campaign in Nizhny Novgorod on Monday 18 June, with a likely must-win encounter against South Korea. Sweden’s fixtures subsequently toughen after this, with Germany next up in Sochi on Saturday 23 June before a final-day meeting with Mexico in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday 27 June.
Road to Qualification
Drawn in a qualification group that also contained France, the Netherlands and Bulgaria, Sweden’s chances of progress seemed slim as they entered the post-Ibrahimovic era.
However, Sweden’s only defeat in their first six matches came in a 2-1 away reverse in France, a loss they avenged with a victory by the same score in the return fixture.
Andersson’s side sat top of UEFA Group A qualification following this success over the French, which followed wins over Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Belarus and a draw with the Dutch.
The hammer blow to Sweden’s automatic qualification chances came in their seventh group fixture, with Bulgaria running out 3-2 winners over the Swedes in Sofia.
Comprehensive victories over Belarus and Luxembourg still left Sweden with an outside chance of top spot going into their final group match, but a 2-0 defeat to the Netherlands proved to be immaterial as France simultaneously ground out a 2-1 win over Belarus.
Sweden scored 26 goals en route to finishing in second place, the most in Group A and indeed more than any side finishing as runners-up in the UEFA qualifying section.
Andersson’s troops conceded nine goals in all, with seven of these strikes coming in away defeats to France, Bulgaria and the Netherlands. The Swedes remained unbeaten at home throughout qualification, meanwhile.
A nervy 180 minutes against Italy in the play-off round was settled by a 61st-minute Jakob Johansson strike in the first leg in Solna, with Gianpiero Ventura’s Italian side unable to break down a stubborn Swedish defence in the return fixture.
Most starts: Robin Olsen, Andreas Granqvist, Emil Forsberg (12), Victor Lindelof, Marcus Berg (11), Ludwig Augustinsson, Mikael Lustig, Ola Toivonen (9), Jimmy Durmaz, Albin Ekdal (7), Sebastian Larsson (5)
Most goals: Marcus Berg (8), Emil Forsberg (4), Andreas Granqvist, Mikael Lustig, Ola Toivonen (3)
Most assists: Ludwig Augustinsson, Ola Toivonen (4), Marcus Berg, Emil Forsberg (3), Mikael Lustig, Emil Krafth (2)
Sweden have contested three “official” friendlies since sealing qualification in Russia, as well as two other encounters with Denmark and Estonia in Abu Dhabi in January.
The Swedes are without a win in their three most recent FIFA-sanctioned matches, with defeats against Chile and Romania preceding a goalless draw with Denmark.
The Key Targets
The stand-out target in attack is Marcus Berg (£6.7m on Fantasy iTeam and £8.0m on McDonald’s FIFA, Sweden’s most expensive player in both games).
Only four other European strikers beat Berg’s total of eight qualifying goals, four of which came from his head – no forward scored more headed goals in UEFA qualification.
Berg has consistently found the net at club level, scoring 65 goals in 99 league appearances for Panathinaikos before a move to the Middle East last summer. In his debut season with Al Ain FC, the champions of the United Arab Emirates, Berg scored on 25 occasions in just 21 appearances.
It should be noted that six of Berg’s eight strikes for Sweden in qualification came against group also-rans Luxembourg and Belarus, while just one of his 18 goals for the national side (against Iran in March 2015) came against opposition that will be participating in this summer’s World Cup.
Berg registered three assists during qualification, though hasn’t delivered an attacking return in two subsequent international friendly appearances.
The bustling Ola Toivonen (£6.2m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), who had an unremarkable loan spell at Sunderland in 2015/16, is a cheaper option up front.
Though Toivonen scored fewer goals (three in total) than his strike partner during qualification, the Toulouse forward provided more assists (four) than Berg and also found the back of the net in Sweden’s 2-1 home defeat to Chile in March.
Emil Forsberg (£6.6m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is the closest thing Sweden have to a superstar in their squad. The midfielder, who can either play as a second striker or, as is more likely in Andersson’s preferred 4-4-2 formation, on the left of midfield, scored four goals and supplied three assists during qualification.
Forsberg’s second year in Germany with RB Leipzig wasn’t nearly as productive as his debut campaign in 2016/17, in which he was involved in 30 of his team’s league goals.
Forsberg scored only twice and recorded two assists in 21 Bundesliga appearances this season, scoring just once for club and country in all competitions since the turn of the year.
No Sweden player had more attempts on goal during qualification than Forsberg, however, and his importance to his country’s attacking prospects cannot be understated.
Andreas Granqvist (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) represents excellent value in defence. The 33-year-old centre-half started all 12 of his country’s qualification matches, keeping clean sheets in seven of those fixtures – including in both legs of the play-off tie with Italy.
As well as being an aerial threat from set-pieces, Granqvist has assumed penalty-taking duties for the Swedes: all three of his qualification goals came from the spot.
The Long Shots
Like Granqvist, Sweden’s full-backs could provide Fantasy returns at both ends of the pitch.
No Swedish player created more goals in qualification (four) than Ludwig Augustinsson (£5.4m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), whose excellent delivery from set pieces and open play on the left flank provides huge assist potential.
However, the Werder Bremen defender faces stiff competition from Martin Olsson (£5.6m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) for the left-back role and starts are far from guaranteed: Olsson lined up at left-back in Sweden’s most recent friendly against Denmark, though Augustinsson was largely favoured during qualification.
Mikael Lustig (£5.6m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) looks a safer bet at right-back. Sweden tend to play with a compact midfield four, with their two full-backs encouraged to bomb forward and deliver crosses into their two menacing forwards.
The Celtic defender provided two assists during qualification, but also offers a goal threat from set pieces with his height: two of his three strikes were headers.
Goalkeeper Robin Olsen (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) was an ever-present during qualification and looks to have recovered from a shoulder injury that kept him out for three months towards the end of the season.
Seven of Olsen’s 12 starts resulted in clean sheets, with back-to-back shut-outs against Italy proving that the Swedish backline can stand firm against top-class opposition.
Olsen could benefit hugely from McDonald’s FIFA and Fantasy iTeam both rewarding save points: the Swedish goalkeeper made more saves per match than any other shot-stopper who played more than two matches in UEFA qualification.
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