Sweden suffered a big loss when Zlatan Ibrahimovic called it quits on the national team after Euro 2016, but after three matches in the World Cup qualifiers, the Swedes have started to adjust to life without Zlatan.
After a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands in the openers of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers back in September, the Swedes picked up wins over Luxembourg and Bulgaria on Friday and Monday. They only beat Luxembourg by a goal, picking up a 1-0 win after a goal by right back Mikael Lustig. But the big thing was to get the three points against a team that sat back for the whole game hoping for a scoreless draw. Sweden created plenty of chances, putting 13 shots on target, but were unable to make it count in front of goal except for Lustig’s goal.
Against Bulgaria, in front of a sparsely crowded Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden put on a good performance and showed a bit more determination in front of goal. Ola Toivonen opened up the scoring in the 39th minute with a shot from close range, as the ball fell to him after a backheel attempt by Marcus Berg. Oscar Hiljemark made it 2-0 right before halftime, putting Bulgaria in a tough spot. Sweden controlled most of the play in the second half, with centre back Victor Lindelof made it 3-0 in the 58th minute with his first goal for Sweden.
There still were some concern at defense for Sweden, as they complicated things on a couple of occasions and nearly gifted Bulgaria a way back into the game. Without Ibrahimovic in the team serving as the focal point of the attacks, new manager Janne Andersson is looking for more of a team effort in all areas of the pitch.
Toivonen and Berg started up front for Sweden, with John Guidetti coming on late in the second half. These three will be Andersson’s main choices up front. He has three quality left backs in Martin Olsson, Ludwig Augustinsson and Oscar Wendt, who can also be used as a left winger. Forsberg is a player that breaks the mold a bit and his creative skills will be needed when they take on France in the next qualifying game in November.
Sweden are tied with France at the top of Group A with seven points, while the Netherlands sits in third with four points after losing 1-0 to France on Monday after a goal by Paul Pogba.
With only the group winner guaranteed a ticket to Russia, the best hope for Sweden is to become one of the eight best second-placed nations to get a chance in the qualification playoffs. Winning the group ahead of a stacked France team feels unrealistic, but finishing ahead of a Dutch side that is also in transition is surely something to aim for. Getting a point in one of the games against France would be a great bonus, and making sure not to lose against the Dutch in their second meeting, and things might be alright even though Zlatan is no longer around.
With former Iceland and Sweden manager Lars Lagerback part of Andersson’s coaching staff, the Swedes will surely hope to replicate some of the success that Iceland had at the Euros. It will take a team effort to reach the World Cup, and with the recent success of the U21s, the hope is that Andersson will have some new players coming up. With Lindelof, they have one of the most exciting young centre backs in Europe, and Hiljemark is finally getting the shot he deserves in midfield with Andersson taking over from Erik Hamren. If one of Toivonen, Berg, and Guidetti can get into a scoring rhythm, Sweden could get back onto soccer’s biggest stage after missing out on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.