Sweden stood for one of the biggest upsets in the Under-21 European Championship qualification round, as they were able to knock out a star-studded France in the qualification playoffs to secure a spot in the tournament. Now it’s up to the Swedes to prove that they can compete against several top-level teams in Group B.
The Czech Republic is hosting its second large sporting event this year, as they will be the site for the Under-21 European Championship that starts on June 17. The Czech Republic hosted the IIHF Hockey World Championship in May. Although it’s a under-21 tournament, as long as the players are born in or after 1992 they are eligible, making the maximum age 23. That’s because the qualifications for the tournament started in 2013.
The Swedes’ journey to the Czech Republic started in qualification Group 7. Four nations in that group battled all the way to the end. In addition to Sweden, Greece, Poland and Turkey all had strong campaigns in one of the most competitive groups of all in the qualification round. Sweden ended up winning the group on 16 points after five wins, one draw and two losses. Greece came second with 15 points, same as third-placed Poland, and Turkey came in fourth with 13 points. Malta was the punching bag of the group and finished dead last with zero points.
In the qualification playoffs, Sweden went up against a French team that included stars like Geoffrey Kondogbia (AS Monaco), Samuel Umtiti (Lyon) and Florian Thauvin (Marseille). The French dominated the first leg in Le Mans at the MM Arena. Goals by Thauvin and Kondogbia gave the French a firm grip on the matchup and one foot in the tournament. But after a remarkable 4-1 victory at Orjans Vall in Halmstad, Sweden rallied and got through 4-3 on aggregate after two goals each by Isaac Kiese Thelin (Bordeaux) and Oscar Lewicki (Malmo FF).
Head coach Hakan Ericson picked a squad that includes 22 players that featured in the qualifications. The only player without any prior experience in this U-21 side is Elfsborg’s winger Arber Zeneli. The big star of this team is John Guidetti (Manchester City). The outspoken striker spent this season on loan at Scottish league champions Celtic, where he scored 15 goals in 35 appearances. He’s set to become a free agent as his contract with City expires at the end of this month, so the U-21 Championship is the perfect stage to show off his skills for potential employers as scouts from all over Europe will attend the games.
Guidetti and Kiese Thelin each had four goals for Sweden during the qualifiers. The team is made up of 10 players from teams in Sweden and 13 players spread out across Europe. In addition to Guidetti, there are several interesting names who play for mid-level clubs in Europe. Branimir Hrgota (Borussia Monchengladbach), Oscar Hiljemark (PSV Eindhoven) and Sam Larsson (Heerenveen) are all players who can create moments of magic on the pitch.
Hrgota featured in 27 games, scoring five goals, in the German Bundesliga, German Cup and the Europa League. Larsson had a big breakthrough in the Dutch Eredivisie, scoring eight goals in 21 league games from his wide attacking position on the left side. Larsson is an extremely creative player that can occupy several defenders with his dribbling.
At the back, Alexander Milosevic (Besiktas) and Filip Helander (Malmo) will most likely be the central defensive pairing. Both these players are on the brink to be a part of the Swedish senior team and they will have their hands full as they will go up against some really good forwards like Harry Kane (England), Andrea Belotti (Italy), and Ricardo (Portugal).
Patrik Carlgren (AIK Solna) will be the No. 1 goalkeeper. The 23-year-old has taken over the starting job at AIK and will be relied on heavily to keep the other nations at bay.
Sweden is a strong team collectively, so other teams can’t take them lightly. Keeping a nation like France from reaching the tournament shows just how good this Swedish side is, but they will have to all come together and play their best soccer in their young careers if they are going to get out of the group and reach the semifinals.
June 18: Italy – Sweden
June 21: Sweden – England
June 24: Portugal – Sweden
Goalkeepers: Patrik Carlgren (AIK), Jacob Rinne (Orebro), Andreas Linde (Molde).
Defenders: Victor Nilsson-Lindelof (Benfica), Alexander Milosevic (Besiktas), Filip Helander (Malmo), Ludwig Augustinsson (Copenhagen), Oscar Lewicki (Malmo), Joseph Baffo (Halmstad), Sebastian Holmen (Elfsborg), Pa Konate (Malmo).
Midfielders: Oscar Hiljemark (PSV), Abdullah Khalilil (Mersin), Arber Zeneli (Elfsborg), Kristoffer Olsson (Midtjylland), Simon Tibbling (Groningen), Robin Quaison (Palermo), Simon Gustafsson (Hacken).
Forwards: Branimir Hrgota (Monchengladbach), John Guidetti (Manchester City), Isaac Kiese Thelin (Bordeaux), Mikael Ishak (Randers), Sam Larsson (Heerenveen).