Andreas Granqvist and Manuel Akanji are rocks solid Sweden and Switzerland's success is built on

Matt Jones 3/07/2018
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Sweden and Switzerland have flown somewhat under the radar in Russia so far, but both deserve huge credit for making the World Cup’s round of 16.

Sweden were unlucky to lose to Germany, but had the last laugh when the champions were sent packing by South Korea, with a 3-0 trouncing of Mexico seeing them emerge as Group F winners.

Sweden, meanwhile, held Brazil to a 1-1 draw in their opener and beat Serbia and Costa Rica to finish as runners-up behind the Samba Boys.

Both sides have been sturdy so far, but something will have to give between two rock solid sides when they meet in Saint Petersburg.

Here, we look at the key protagonists in this game (18:00 kick-off in UAE on Tuesday).

ANDREAS GRANQVIST V MANUEL AKANJI

He looks more like someone you’d encounter down the park when featuring for your Sunday league side. From some angles it appears as if the balding Granqvist is even rocking the dad bod, but he’s been absolutely rock solid for Sweden as they reduced rampant Mexico to rubble in their final Group F encounter to finish top of the pile.

He scored the crucial only goal of the game from the penalty spot as they got off to a flyer, beating South Korea. The 33-year-old was then immense as Germany were thwarted in the second-half of the second game, before Toni Kroos’ late rocket. But the Helsingborg stalwart struck another venomous penalty as mighty Mexico were trounced in the final game as Sweden qualified, surprisingly, as winners.

Akanji, meanwhile, would have no trouble convincing most critics that he’s been playing at the heart of this Swiss defence for years.

The 22-year-old is in the top three for tackles (3.3), interceptions (1.3) and clearances (2.7) and fourth for blocks (0.3) per game among teammates at the World Cup – yet this will be just his 11th cap after debuting last year.

The Borussia Dortmund prospect is providing substance and style at a position where Switzerland have tended to struggle for the best part of a decade – with Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos continuously failing to convince.

EMIL FORSBERG V XHERDAN SHAQIRI

He’s sometimes confused for someone who might be carrying an extra few kilograms, but Xherdan Shaqiri displayed his searing pace when he cut through the Serbia defence like a hot knife through a block of Swiss cheese as he scored the crucial winner in the second group game.

He struggled as Stoke City battled against Premier League relegation last season, but he’s shown his class in Russia so far and will be a key figure once again as the Swiss look to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in 64 years.

In a team renowned for their stoic strength of mind and physicality, he provides a real cutting edge.

Forsberg, meanwhile, has been excellent for the Swedes, but they too have reached the last 16 based largely on their defensive solidity and teamwork.

As they have tried to make themselves hard to beat, the cunning of RB Leipzig’s creative hub has often struggled to shine beneath the grit and graft.

But with the shackles now cast aside with the knockouts reached and every game now decisive, expect him to come to the fore. His incisive runs and passing will be key to unlocking a Swiss side that runs like clockwork.

MARCUS BERG V BREEL EMBOLO

01 07 key battles Sweden v Switzerland 3

There may not be a player more deserving of a goal who is yet to get on the scoresheet in Russia than Berg. He has been at his bustling best as he’s proven a physical mismatch for his markers, despite not being the burliest.

His off the ball running and energy has been a real benefit to Sweden and he was instrumental as Germany snatched an undeserved 2-1 win in the second group game.

Had Jerome Boateng been rightly sent off for taking out Berg and a penalty given, the scoreline might have had a very different look.

The striker plays for UAE side Al Ain and is going through a dry spell for his national team. He has not scored in 2018, with his barren patch starting after he netted four in the commanding 8-0 win over Luxembourg last October.

Breel Embolo has shown flashes of brilliance in two substitute outings so far, but has failed to capitalise on being thrust into the limelight two summers ago, pegged as the next Swiss sensation. It hasn’t quite worked for him yet, but at only 21 he has time on his side. Could be a difference maker on what is expected to be his second start.

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Roberto Martinez hails Belgium's 'desire' after thrilling fightback against Japan

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Thibaut Courtois sprints towards Roberto Martinez after Belgium's late winner.

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez praised his players’ desire after they dramatically recovered from going two goals down to win 3-2 against Japan and progress to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Martinez’s team will face Brazil next but will do so with renewed confidence in their abilities and with the knowledge that they are highly capable of recovering from losing positions.

Their fourth victory from four in Russia represented the first time since West Germany defeated England in 1970 that a team has won a World Cup knockout match after falling at least two goals behind.

Nacer Chadli had scored their winning goal in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time, following earlier finishes from fellow substitute Marouane Fellaini and Jan Vertonghen.

Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui had earlier given Japan a 2-0 lead that with less than 30 minutes to play had left Belgium on the verge of elimination.

Having watched his team demonstrate their potential, Martinez felt they had passed a test of their character.

“You have to find a reaction, but what you need more than anything is the desire and togetherness of a group of players who are desperate to perform,” the Spaniard told FIFA’s official website.

“If you look at the stats there are not many games where you can come back from 2-0 down at a World Cup.

“This is down to the personality, to the focus, to the desire, to the never-give-up attitude of the players and almost the belief of the players when they came on. Doing it within the 90 minutes was an incredible achievement.

“The third goal is a really strong counter-attack which in almost six seconds we cover from one box to another with three players being able to get there. Then the unselfish play from Romelu Lukaku, who as a number nine could have tried to finish the action, but he is aware and allows Nacer Chadli to score into an open goal.”

Belgium get there in the end! 😅

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Japan had pursued a third goal, despite being consistently outplayed before they had taken the lead, and their manager Akira Nishino said: “We wanted to win it. Our team is strong enough and against Belgium we could at least match them, I believed.

“There were different plans in my mind and of course we started off very well but at the end, right at the end, to have conceded a goal like that was not expected.

“When we were 2-0 up and I didn’t change my players, I really wanted to score another goal and we did have opportunities. We were to some extent, controlling the ball and controlling the game, but at that point, Belgium upped their game when they really had to.

“At that point, when the free-kick and corner-kick were taken, we wanted to decide and finish the match. Of course at that point I thought we might go to extra-time but I did not expect that kind of super counter-attack and my players didn’t expect that in a few seconds the ball would be carried into our half and it would decide the match.”

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Real Madrid deny making an offer to sign PSG and Brazil star Neymar

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Star of the World Cup: Neymar.

Real Madrid have denied making “any kind of offer” to Paris Saint Germain for their Brazil forward Neymar, the most expensive player in the world.

A report by Television Espanola (TVE) claimed on Monday that Real were preparing to surpass the 222million euro (£200million) fee that PSG paid Barcelona for Neymar last August in their own bid to bring the 26-year-old to the Bernabeu.

Real have rejected the TVE report, with a statement published on realmadrid.com reading: “In light of information broadcast tonight by TVE regarding an alleged Real Madrid offer to PSG and their player Neymar, Real Madrid wish to state that this information is absolutely untrue. Real Madrid has made no offer of any kind to PSG or the player.

“Real Madrid are surprised that the Spanish public television network would choose to broadcast entirely false information without anyone from the outlet having first contacted any of the parties concerned to corroborate the supposed information, which would have been quite easily discredited.”

Neymar, who is set to feature against Belgium in the World Cup quarter-finals after scoring in his country’s 2-0 victory over Mexico, scored 28 goals in all competitions for PSG last season following his surprise, world-record transfer to Paris.

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