It’s the 1990s all over again. England are one game away from reaching their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years while Sweden are on course to emulate their third-place finish in 1994.
The Swedes’ run to the last eight has been built on a voracious work ethic coupled with a stifling defence. The Three Lions’ back-line is also heavily fortified and up front they have the trusty, and perhaps soon-to-be golden, boot of Harry Kane.
Below we pick out the three most tantalising match-ups ahead of the quarter-final in Samara.
MARCUS BERG v HARRY KANE
This is hardly a favourable comparison for Al Ain striker Marcus Berg considering that he’s drawn a blank and Kane has notched up a tournament-leading six goals.
Berg’s right boot may as well dispense helium given that he’s ballooned many of his shots high and wide – but if accuracy hadn’t deserted him he’d surely be off the mark by now. He also forced Yann Sommer into a spectacular save in the quarter-final versus Switzerland.
Indeed, the 31-year-old has been eluding enough defenders by popping up in dangerous positions and, together with 6ft 2in Ola Toivonen, will present England’s back three with their most physical challenge yet.
In contrast Kane has been at his clinical best – and he’s had to be due to a concerning lack of service from open play. While Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling have shown spurts of inspiration, their link-up play has rarely included the Tottenham striker. He has mustered nine shots in total and three of those were from the spot.
This can also be digested in a more positive light. Tunisia, Panama and Colombia all resorted to rough stuff in the box in order to deal with the Golden Boot hunter’s movement and power – leading to penalties or at the very least good shouts.
Sweden are likely to be every bit as physical as Colombia – though hopefully less cynical – and Kane has not shirked from the challenge. Even when the supply lines were cut off in Moscow on Tuesday night, he came foraging for the ball and won an incredible 11 aerial duels while being fouled nine times.
EMIL FORSBERG v RAHEEM STERLING
No player polarises opinion more in England than Sterling. Whether it is his superb goal-scoring season for Manchester City, an eye-brow raising tattoo or sinister undertones from the tabloids when criticising his perceived lifestyle, there is never a shortage of topics up for discussion.
Despite that joyous end to a nerve-shredding night, one notorious British media outlet stuck the boot in on Sterling’s performance almost as soon as he was substituted in Moscow. It was a horrendous misjudgment of the national mood and hastily rewritten.
There was, however, a kernel of truth to be found when the country stopped bouncing. Sterling, still only 23, has won 41 caps for England and has just two strikes to show for it, the last of which came in October 2015. How such a talented forward – who managed 23 goals for City last season – can have such a dire record is unfathomable.
But he remains so important for the Three Lions. No one can match him for pace and, marry that with his intelligent, darting runs, he visibly keeps defenders in check when off the ball. He just needs to sharpen his accuracy when in possession and clearly that’s no simple task.
Though Sterling remains goalless he had been a more impactful presence then Sweden’s chief source of inspiration, Emil Forsberg, up until the round of 16. The RB Leipzig playmaker had been a disappointment in a team that has done nothing but exceed expectations so far.
According to whoscored.com‘s statistics, Forsberg is not not even averaging one ‘key pass’ a game, which along with his dribbling is his strongest suit. Kieran Trippier, arguably the World Cup’s finest right-back, will be lurking down his flank in Samara to make sure the trend continues.
Some of his deficiencies can be put down to the Swedish gameplan. Head coach Janne Andersson is as pragmatic as they come and in his eyes his star man is valued just as highly for the sacrifices he has made to his natural game.
“Even if he doesn’t succeed in every dribble, in every part of his game he contributes in so many ways and he has those decisive moments,” said Andersson after Forsberg’s deflected winner against Switzerland.
ANDREAS GRANQVIST v HARRY MAGUIRE
Some English fans may have faint memories of Andreas Granqvist’s miserable loan spell under Paul Jewell’s Wigan a decade ago. Ironically he has developed into one of the few modern-day footballers who could cope with the blood-and-thunder British football of the 70s and 80s – an old-fashioned defender who plays with as many frills as he asks from his barber.
The 33-year-old is a totemic leader, as was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but in so many different ways. Where Ibrahimovic led with his ego, Granqvist has as an even bigger heart. Nicknamed ‘the Christmas Tree’ in his homeland, the festive season will start early should Sweden keep a clean sheet for a third time in four games.
He and Manchester United centre-back Victor Lindelof do not have a thick layer of protective coating in Sweden’s dogmatic 4-4-2 set-up, yet the pair have been the picture of serenity – as far as blocks and headers can be made to seem, anyway – which should force England to play with more width. Oh ,and Granqvist wouldn’t be bad in a penalty shootout, too …
Leicester’s Harry Maguire is the only first-choice England outfield player who belongs to a Premier League club outside of last season’s top four but has performed like he is born for the big stage.
Wherever the ball was, his head followed against Colombia and it was to his great misfortune that Yerry Mina had the run on him for the equalising goal that eventually forced England into eradicating their penalty shootout curse at a World Cup.
Maguire has played half a game less than Granqvist but has won 11 more aerial duels and many of those have come in the opposition box. There is no team left that poses such a danger from set-pieces and Maguire is a key reason for that.
As England operate with a back three, Maguire has been allowed to show off his competency at bringing the ball out and helping the Three Lions transition into attack.
The 25-year-old may not receive quite as much space for marauding if the Swedish front two close down, but between him and John Stones, England are likely to keep the lion’s share of possession and help support lone pivot Jordan Henderson dissect the midfield.
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