To take a phrase from Sir Alex Ferguson’s dictionary it really is ‘squeaky bum time’ for the two sides left fighting it out for the final quarter final spot. Having witnessed three days of tense, nervy encounters we can expect to be treated to one more before the tournament progresses. Whilst this one may not have the goals Turkey and the Czech Republic produced we should still expect a game with a number of chances. Whether those are few and far between or plentiful will depend on how brave the two coaches are feeling. It takes a lot of nerve to send a team out there with an attacking mentality in a game that will make or break your side’s tournament.
For Guus Hiddink and Lars Lagerback tonight will be a real test of their character and ability because whilst Sweden only need a draw sending a team out set up for that 0-0 can be a risky tactic which could easily backfire. The Swedes played for a draw against Spain and look what happened there, a lapse in concentration combined with a moment of brilliance and David Villa snatched a point away from the 1992 tournament hosts. This was a classic example of a sides tactics imploding and Lagerback must be wary not to do the same thing again. Russia may not possess a play with the same qualities of David Villa but they do have a couple of dangerous strikers to watch out for. Sweden must go out for the win, get themselves a couple of goals ahead and then allow yourself to sit back and soak up the pressure. Spain have shown us that the Russians aren’t the quickest at the back and are susceptible on the counter attack, something which Lagerback will have noted.
Sweden’s side may be an ageing one but together as a unit they are extremely effective, with the exception of the two strikers and Freddie Ljungberg there are no star names in the squad. What Sweden have done successfully over the years is picked a squad built around the ethic that it’s the sum of the parts that make the machine which is important rather than the individual parts themselves. In essence what that means is Lagerback picks the players which best correspond with the formation or tactic he has in mind, rather than picking the best players and shoe-horning them into roles which they aren’t suited for, like England do. The Russians face a tough task to get past the group stage for the first time in 20 years since they were runners-up to Holland in 1988. In their last game against the Greeks though Russia showed us that they weren’t pushovers and that they can play some good football. They may have been hanging on slightly come the final whistle but they were certainly the better side on the night. Guus Hiddink is working with the youngest squad in the Euro’s and with youth comes inexperience and naivety, aspects we saw against Spain when they were cut to shreds. In that game they failed to counter the Spaniards quick passing and movement, their defenders trying to go toe-to-toe with Villa and Fernando Torres in a foot race they were always going to lose.
Now though I think Hiddink’s inexperienced side are beginning to show some real grit and determination, something they were accused of lacking in the first game. Greece may be a poor side now but it still takes a lot of hard work to break them down and defend their constant high balls into the penalty area. I was impressed with the likes of Yuri Zhirkov and Dmitri Torbinski, not huge in stature but who got stuck in against the Greeks and had impressive games.
In the end though I fear experience may shine through this encounter, with the Russians possessing the least experienced squad I do not hold out much hope for the side. Sweden already hold the advantage with only needing a draw, although if Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t fit their goal threat will be reduced greatly. But only needing a draw means that if Sweden sneak a goal then it will be a long run back for the Russians. Even with the return of the influential Andrei Arshavin this could prove to be a test which the young Russians are unable to complete at this moment in time. The tournament has come too early for the former Communist country as they begin to re-establish themselves on the world footballing stage. As for the Swede’s well the quarter finals will be as far as they go, they are at the opposite end of the spectrum in that this tournament has come along too late for a proportion of their team. The quarters will be as far as they go in Euro 2008 where they will face Holland, a side who will go all the way, unlike the two Group D contenders.
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