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Tough little nut
by Mark Hayton
Issue 15
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Sweden 0 - 0 Finland

Undoubtedly, the majority of reports to follow this rather uneventful encounter will contain but three names: Ibrahimovic, Larsson and Ljungberg. For so ineffective were the Swedes, only the names of those who weren't present deserve any of the headlines. In stark contrast, those heroes capable of belting out a sterling version of 'Maamme-laulu' will, for the most part, remain unsung.

At the beginning of play, we found Sweden a 33-1 bet to win the World Cup and ranked 16th in the world by FIFA. Facing them on their home turf were Finland, ranked 49th and, amid all of the tight run sporting clashes between these two nations recently, were far outsiders to take anything more than autographs away from Gothenburg.

Yes, Sweden left Larsson and Ljungberg at home, while Ibrahimovic mirrored his recent club form by remaining a spectator for ninety minutes. However, Sweden is in the World Cup, they enjoy a certain notoriety in the football community, they were at home, this should have been a walk in the park…quite simply, this was not the case.

The game itself had little to offer, chances were few and far between and in the opening round of sparring it was Finland that created the most chances. Finland looked promising early on, with Litmanen walking through the Swedish defence before scooping his shot over the bar and Joonas Kolkka literally humiliating Niclas Alexandersson on a number occasions, missing only the final ball or that decisive finish.

Sweden came back but the front line of Johan Elmander and Markus Rosenberg rarely troubled the Finnish defence, Elmander in particular spurned two text book definitions of the 'Guilt-Edged Chance' closing his eyes and blasting into the stands when clear through on goal.

As the half continued, Sweden decided the long ball was firmly back in style and repeatedly humped it forward with no effect. Finland returned with slow, careful build up, but both teams severely lacked a clinical finisher. The best shot of the game was delivered just before the break, Petri Pasanen thundering a 30-yard free kick off the bar leaving the Swedes shell-shocked.

After the interval, Roy Hodgson and his men looked content with a draw and Lars Lagerback looked unwilling to risk defeat; the memory of being routed in Dublin in their last friendly still fresh in the mind.

It would be inaccurate to say that the game worsened in the second half, in fact nothing changed. Sweden continued with the long ball tactic, Kuivasto and Tihinen remained a strong defensive pairing throughout, while Arsenal's young Rami Shaban had one of the easier international debuts of recent memory.

But therein lie our unsung heroes, Sweden was unimpressive, unimaginative and thoroughly unconvincing as World Cup Participants, but as a defensive and tactically minded display Finland were impressive. Finland pressed, hustled and essentially frustrated Sweden for the majority of the second half and had Forsell shown the form or fitness of two years ago, they might even have nicked it.

However, as it was always destined to be, the four minutes of added time were played and the game ended goalless and in a crescendo of boos. The Swedish faithful, having had their Ibrahimovic chants ignored by Lagerback for over half an hour, voiced their opinions of the display, hardly a 'pat on the back'.

In the post match interviews both managers talked about missing Swedes, the World Cup and, in true English style, Hodgson even mentioned the weather in defence of Sweden's performance: "It was very windy and the pitch was not as good as the pitches will be in Germany."

It would seem everyone was in agreement, everything was against Sweden today, it's no surprise they failed to produce. The thing is though, it wasn't everything. It was Finland and in which ever manner they got a result you can't take away from them that they fought all the way for it, and deserved to walk away from Gothenburg with their heads held high.

For the Swedes and the media that point the finger at missing players, I point it at Lagerback and his staff. Under Hodgson Finland are a tough little nut to crack, next time Sweden will have to show a bit more respect.

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