With the qualifying fixtures for EURO 2012 just drawn, it has to be said that it has been relatively kind to Sweden.
Netherlands: The inventers and pioneers of Total Football will be Sweden’s greatest obstacle to direct qualification. Neutrals will love watching their free flowing attack game, but they’re in a completely different class and it is easy to envisage them ripping Sweden apart. Although, like a lot of sides who insists on aesthetically pleasing football (such as Arsenal), they can be wildly inconsistent and often fall victim to technically inferior but pragmatic opposition. You wouldn’t put money on it, but it is not impossible for Sweden to grind out points from the Dutch.
FIFA ranking: 3
Finland: This clash will not only be a Nordic derby, but will possibly see Sweden play a squad with more Allsvenskan players than themselves. The Finns have made great strides under former boss Roy Hodgson and continue to do so under Stuart Baxter. In the recent World Cup qualifiers they finished third behind Germany and Russia in what was a tough group. In that campaign they drew against Germany twice and only lost two games, so beating Sweden is not beyond them. However a number of their core players are well passed their peak and probably don’t have much more left in them. Sami Hyypiä (aged 36), Joonas Kolkka (35), and Finland’s greatest ever footballer Jari Litmanen (38), may well not see the whole campaign out. Also working in Sweden’s favour is the fact that Finland has never qualified for a major tournament.
FIFA ranking: 54
Hungary: The once famous Magical Magyars have fallen a long way since the days of Ferenc Puskás, and they haven’t qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup. Sweden won both encounters during the last World Cup qualifiers. They’re unlikely to finish ahead of Sweden, but they can take away valuable points.
FIFA ranking: 52
Moldova: Moldova didn’t win a single match during their last World Cup qualification campaign, finishing last behind Luxembourg. Their two games against Sweden should be a guaranteed six points, but you wouldn’t put it past Sweden to grind out a tie.
FIFA ranking: 96
San Marino: This lot have only ever won one match in their entire history, a 1-0 win over Liechtenstein in 2004. With a population smaller than the island of Lidingö, this will be Sweden’s chance to either field a B team, or dramatically improve their goal difference. Possibly both. This will be a guaranteed six points for Sweden, otherwise I’m closing down this blog and never writing about football ever again.
FIFA ranking: 203
The Verdict: To qualify Sweden need to at least finish in the top two of their group. Top spot will guarantee direct qualification, as will the best runner-up of the nine groups. The remaining eight will then play off against each other for the four remaining spots.
The presence of Holland makes it difficult to see Sweden qualifying first. However Finland, Hungary, Moldova and San Marino are all beatable opposition, and on paper they are all inferior to Sweden. If they can take maximum points than they will stand a good chance of claiming direct qualification as the best runner-up.
However after Lars Lagerbäck’s resignation and the retirement of a number of players, 2010 sees Sweden with a new coach and a significantly different squad. Under Lagerbäck Sweden had a tendency to play conservatively and often drew games they should have won. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic withdrawing his services from the national team, Sweden will need to get their goals from elsewhere and gain maximum points from the likes of Moldova, Hungary and Finland.