The city of Innsbruck is the setting for tonight’s decisive clash between these two tournament dark horses. Both Sweden and Russia have shown glimpses of the kind of form needed to go all the way in a major tournament and both will be hoping that they will be the team to face Holland in Basel on Saturday night. The progression of their nation will depend on individual performances from star players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sweden and Roman Pavlyuchenko for Russia. Another key factor is perhaps the return of Andrei Arshavin, Russia’s playmaker and midfield instigator who has been missing from Euro 2008 thus far due to a two-match suspension. Arshavin was a classy performer in the crucial win over England in Moscow back in October and shown signs of being a player for the big occasion. Pavlyuchenko is also a player to watch having scored Russia’s consolation goal in a 4-1 defeat to Spain in their opening game of Euro 2008 and regularly scoring at his domestic club Spartak Moscow with a goal every two games ratio. They also have creativity from the flanks with Yuri Zhirkov and Sergey Semak a constant threat with dead-ball situations and long-range shooting.
Russia were good value for their 1-0 win against Greece last Saturday and will be hoping that they have picked up form at the right time, after their wayward performance against Spain, to stun the Swedes and progress to the knockout stages of the competition. Coach Guus Hiddink is looking for the same resolve shown in the Greek victory but fears for his ‘inexperienced’ team. Russia’s squad has an average age of just 26 and is the youngest in the tournament compared with the Swedes who at an average age of just 29 years per player make them the most experienced. Players such as Anders Svensson and Olof Mellberg who make up the first-team, are veterans with vast big competition experience. Russia will lose out if the game becomes a scrappy affair as many of Sweden’s men will have been in that situation before and will know what is needed for their team to succeed and advance to the quarter-finals. No-one doubts the pedigree of the coach Guus Hiddink but its if he can pass on all his own big-match tenacity to his players in such a cauldron of an atmosphere. For Sweden it is a must-not-lose game as a draw will be enough for them to progress but for Russia its win or bust as their goals against column is a worse state than Sweden’s having lost 4-1 to Spain whilst Sweden only lost to an injury-time effort from David Villa. Hiddink will be hoping to stress the importance of keeping it tight at the back and not giving Sweden any opportunties from which to break from as these are where Sweden are most prolific. Even against Spain, Sweden showed they can mix it up with anyone with their laid-back style of play so the Russians should be very weary.
Sweden have only one injury concern before the clash with Zlatan Ibrahimovic still struggling with a swollen knee. Marcus Rosenberg may be called upon again in the second half of the game if Lagerback goes with Johan Elmander at right midfield again as he did against Spain but this is unlikely with the game being of such importance. Sweden may therefore stick to Kim Kallstrom in the midfield for creativity and experience. Ageing frontman Marcus Allback will also be looking for a small role in the game having not featured in either of Sweden’s opening two games. Allback is still a deadly finisher having scored 30 goals in 73 caps, an excellent strike-rate for such a bit-part player. Lagerback is optimistic for tonight’s clash but has concerns because of the obvious threat of Andrei Arshavin in central midfield. “We know Andrei Arshavin and I have no doubts he will strengthen Russiaâ€™s attack, but we havenâ€™t decided how we will neutralize him yet.” This role may be given to holding midfielder Daniel Andersson who has looked assured in Sweden’s prior two matches against Karagounis of Greece and Xavi and Iniesta of Spain so could be the perfect candidate to prevent Arshavin from taking the game by the scruff of the neck. The Swedish defence has been solid throughout Euro 2008 with Stoor finding his feet well at right back against Spain, deputising for the injured Niclas Alexandersson who could return tonight having rejoined full training on Sunday.
Another undeniable plus-point for the Swedes is the energy provided by the evergreen Henrik Larsson. His eye for goal may perhaps be waning a little with passes in the opposition penalty area against Greece when a shot would have been the better option for such a distinguished goalscorer but Larsson is that type of player with team ethic his main objective. His link-up with Ibrahimovic in Salzburg eight days ago against Greece and in the opening half of their game against Spain suggested that they can have the final say on which way this nerve-wracking Group D clash will go. With the winner of the group already decided and Greece assured of their flight home after a shocking defence of the European championship after winning it in such outstanding circumstances in Portugal in 2004, all eyes will be on Basel tonight. This match is likely to be a really close affair with only perhaps a a mistake to settle proceedings. If Sweden control the midfield and play as a counter-attacking unit then they will triumph but if Russia can maintain their pace of play and force a a slower tempo upon Sweden leaving Arshavin, if selected, to control the game then Russia will become favourites. No doubt however that Sweden hold the more talent overall with players such as Freddie Ljungberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic flourishing at Euro 2008 after injury-hit seasons for their clubs. The deciding factor is the defences and Sweden’s has looked imperious at times with only minor lapses of concentration such as Peter Hansson in the last seconds of the Spain game allowing Villa to tuck the ball home so this may give Russia comfort that although Sweden are defensively strong they may not have the attentiveness to see out the game in a healthy position. A point against Spain would have kept the whole group alive and Sweden would have been very satisfied with that but surrendered it right at the death and left the initiative with Spain, putting the pressure back on themselves to gain at least a point against Russia.
Mikael Nilsson will win his 5oth cap if he continues at left-back and with many of their players with over 50 caps to their name and their defensive capabilities, Sweden may shave it in the end, grinding out a close-run victory.
PREDICTION: SWEDEN 1-0 RUSSIA