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 biggest talking points ahead of the quarter-final in Samara on Saturday. To get a feel for the key player battles, read more here.
OPEN PLAY SESAME
As intriguing a match-up this may be, don’t expect O Jogo Bonito. Sweden have scored three times in open play – discounting the own goal that helped them to victory over Mexico – and England just twice: the Jesse Lingard stunner against Panama followed by Kane’s fortuitous deflection.
The pattern of Saturday’s game isn’t hard to decipher. The Three Lions will retain the ball while Sweden will be happy to soak up the pressure and wait for a chance to spring a direct, physical counter. They are comfortable without possession for long periods and average just 297 passes a game, which betters only Iran and Iceland.
Here’s another relevant statistic to back that up. The Swedes have cleared the ball 122 times and created 32 chances from open play. England, for all their ball-playing out of the back albeit against defensive set-ups, have managed just 25 opportunities from open play while clearing the ball 54 times.
Letting opponents control so much of the game is hardly a fail-proof method for victory but teams have been wary against England without being overly concerned that they will find the guile to break such tactics down.
If Gareth Southgate’s side managed to draw first blood – Germany, the only team to have scored against Sweden, had to come from behind – it’ll be interesting to see whether Janne Andersson sticks doggedly to his ways.
DON’T DROP DELE
In hindsight it was a mightily wise decision of Southgate’s to rest the majority of his first-choice XI for the dead rubber against Belgium and as such the 120 minutes plus of drama against Colombia will not have been quite so sapping on the legs.
Consequently only standing injuries should play a role in his team selection and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Dele Alli has been one suggestion bandied about.
Alli suffered a minor thigh injury in the opener but in a thick-and-fast knockout tournament any issue is bound to knock a player off their stride, even though he was kept out of the remaining two group games.
The Tottenham attacker’s performances have also been called into question but the criticism is largely unfair. He was excellent defensively down the left flank and contributed more against a stodgy Colombia than he was given credit for, with one incisive pass into Jesse Lingard – who should have done better to pick out Kane – a highlight.
His goalscoring record – just two in 27 for England – has not done him justice but with Southgate crying out for other goal-scorers alongside Kane, it’d be foolish to sideline a player who so often has the knack for his club.
SWEDES PUT IT BLUNTLY
After the round of 16 defeat, Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic talked about Sweden’s powers of negation as if his team had fallen under a soporific trance. “There was something missing in that match from us but in all the games Sweden have been involved in, their opponents have had a difficult time developing the emotions and momentum you need,” he lamented.
Indeed Switzerland seemed not only bereft of ideas but energy. Sloppy passes, ponderous build-up play and a general sense of ennui pervaded the Swiss in what was a golden chance to reach a World Cup quarter-final.
The Swedish are no magicians – that’s clear to see – yet against superior opposition, which Petkovic claimed his side should have been, their record stands tall. In the qualification stages they beat France at home thanks to a last-gasp Ola Toivonen goal – the reason that the Netherlands themselves stayed at home. And over two legs in the play-offs, they pummelled another international giant in Italy into submission.
England have only beaten Sweden in two of their last 15 meetings and their recent feats have moved some former internationals to the type of arrogance that Three Lions supporters are usually accused of. Former midfielder Hakan Mild has claimed England ‘is easy to score against’ and are ‘spoilt youths’ while Kennet Andersson, another hero of 1994, doesn’t ‘understand how England will be able to score’.
Southgate has a penchant for motivational speeches and he has a few more killer lines to weave in on Saturday.
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