In keeping with the general lack of predictability that this World Cup has exhibited at almost every turn, England won their Round of 16 match on penalties. Now, in the quarter-finals, they face a team who wear yellow jerseys but don’t represent the South American country of Brazil.
If one had followed the strategy of going for the vaguely unpredictable before this tournament started, or in its early stages, the aforementioned yellow jersey-clad team waiting for England in the quarter-final would have been a choice between Australia, Colombia and Sweden. Australia were knocked out in the group-stage, Colombia became the first to lose to England in a World Cup penalty shootout and so, Sweden it is.
Sweden’s road to the quarter-finals is laden with the tattered jerseys of a number of giants. They started their qualification campaign without talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic and were placed in a group that had France and 2014 World Cup’s third-placed Netherlands. Hopeless, one would imagine.
France lost just one match in their qualifiers, and that was in Stockholm against Sweden, who ended up finishing second in the group – ahead of Netherlands – and went on to beat Italy in the qualifiers. This World Cup has thus far been all about giant-killing and Sweden started early.
After that win, a photo of their coach Janne Andersson cleaning up the dressing room went viral. A few days later, he made it clear that he did not like the idea of Zlatan Ibrahimovic returning to the team for the World Cup when speculation arose around that matter. During the ongoing tournament in Russia, midfielder Jimmy Durmaz was subjected to racist abuse from their own fans after Sweden’s loss to Germany. Andersson and the rest of the setup got behind him to release a statement.
Unity and respect lie at the heart of the Swedish team’s cultural setup and it has come a long way in helping them punch above their weight at almost every turn.
England’s run has been equally impressive. Since the 2006 World Cup, the country has been represented by a series of rather disjointed squads in major tournaments. These teams seemed to have been pieced together more on the basis of the players’ reputation than with any consistent tactical plot in mind, something that the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have admitted since they hung up their boots. But Gareth Southgate has clearly come to Russia with the necessary homework already done. Barring their dead-rubber final group game against Belgium, England have fielded pretty much the same starting XI throughout the tournament.
Just as Sweden have shown resilience by leaving heavyweights in their wake and by the way they got behind Jimmy Durmaz, England’s win against Colombia was a fair reflection of the mental fortitude the team possesses. They kept pushing during the 30 minutes of extra time that was forced by Colombia due to a stoppage-time equaliser and kept their cool to see their opponents away in the penalty shootout. This stands in stark contrast to the way they seemed to lose any tactical sense after conceding against Iceland during Euro 2016 or the various collapses we have seen from England teams at major tournaments before that. Their fans have already started the “It’s Coming Home” memes and chants and songs but Southgate and his staff seem to have created a perfect cocoon for the players in which they are more media-friendly than any of their predecessors but it hasn’t overwhelmed them.
But all that would count for nothing if they don’t get past Sweden and doing that is no easy task. Andersson’s side play a solid 4-4-2 which gives them an extra layer of defence and that has been something that Sweden have been dependent upon. The only goals they have conceded thus far in the tournament came in their 2-1 defeat to Germany. Even there, they almost smothered the embattled defending champions to a 1-1 draw and it was a late, brilliant free kick from Toni Kroos that beat them. England, on the other hand, have scored nine goals, which is three more than that of Sweden but they are yet to maintain a clean sheet. Most of the match is expected to be played in the Sweden half with Andersson’s team waiting to pounce on the counter.
Dele Alli could be facing a late fitness check while Ashley Young and Jamie Vardy are also doubtful, although Young seems to be faring better than the other two.
Sweden will be without the suspended full-back Mikael Lustig. There is also concern over Albin Ekdal and Jimmy Durmaz, both of whom missed training on Friday.