Sweden's success hinges largely on three star players
AFP · 13 Jun 2008, 14:31
Published: 13 Jun 2008 14:31 GMT+02:00
Playmaker Freddie Lungberg, 36-year-old Henrik Larsson - who is the equivalent of international football's Lazarus in that he keeps on coming back from the dead - and his striker partner the fiery Zlatan Ibrahimovic will all have to be at their best to stop what looked like a vibrant Spanish team in their opening 4-1 hammering of Russia.
Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck swears by all three, though, he has had to defend his policy of staying faithful to Ljungberg, as the former Arsenal star has been plagued by injuries and rarely played for West Ham last season.
"Our relationship is pretty special, because we go a long way back," said Lagerbäck, who first came across Ljungberg when he selected him for the Under-16 side in 1992 then for the Under-19 side and finally the senior squad in 2000.
However, Lagerbäck insisted that just because they were old comrades there was no special treatment for his captain - scorer of 14 goals in his 73 internationals.
"Freddie is a valued member of the squad, but he does not benefit from any special treatment," insisted Lagerbäck.
Euro 2008 will, however, probably be the last chance for Ljungberg - who was more often seen on advertising hoardings modelling than by West Ham spectators last season - to win some senior honours with the Swedes and he has been linked to a move to David Beckham's American team Los Angeles Galaxy.
While Ljungberg may well be on the wane, Larsson shows few signs of wear and tear and to paraphrase William Shakespeare's lines from Antony and Cleopatra when describing the Egyptian Queen 'age shall not wither him'.
While Ibrahimovic grabbed one of the goals in the 2-0 victory over titleholders Greece, Larsson looked as sharp as ever and will be keen to add to his 36 goals in 96 international appearances.
For Lagerbäck it wasn't a case of him persuading Larsson out of international retirement following a two year hiatus, it was the man himself who had to decide.
"I spoke to Henrik once, and felt he was interested, but Henrik is someone who takes his own decisions, and he evidently felt that this team could do something special.
"He is unique because he is a proven scorer but also a total role model.
"He is important both on the pitch and among the squad, because he makes his team-mates feel better."
Larsson's calming influence has been seen to no better effect than in being reunited with Ibrahimovic, who ended a long scoring drought for the national side with his spectacular effort against the Greeks.
The Inter Milan star has also been an injury concern with a knee injury that kept him out for six weeks towards the end of the Serie A season, though, in typical showman style he returned for the final match to score the two goals in the 2-0 win over Parma that guaranteed the title for Inter.
'Ibracadabra' as he is known - who took his return to 19 goals in 51 internationals - has tried to shed his image as a prima donna only interested in his performances.
"The most important thing is not my goal but the team winning," said Ibrahimovic, who was ditched from the national set-up in the autumn of 2006 for going out drinking.
There will be plenty of time for that should the Swedes emerge victorious at the end of June and give Ljungberg and maybe Larsson the perfect send-off.
By AFP's Jerome Rasetti