STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Having secured their spot at Euro 2016 by beating Scandinavian rivals Denmark in a thrilling two-legged playoff, Swedish fans hope Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company will hit the ground running in France.
The Swedes crashed out at the opening stage of Euro 2012 and, with Italy and Belgium in their group this time round, a victory in their opening Group E game against Ireland on June 13 would go a long way towards helping them to make the knockout stages.
“The team that wins that game has a good chance of advancing. A victory there might be enough to go through,” Sweden coach Erik Hamren told Reuters.
The Swedes struggle against higher-ranked teams and managed just two points from a possible 12 in qualification against group winners Austria and runners-up Russia to finish in third spot.
To make an impact at Euro 2016 they will need captain and record international goalscorer Ibrahimovic to continue to find the net on French soil.
Virtually unstoppable in four seasons in France’s Ligue 1, the 34-year-old Paris Saint Germain striker netted 11 of Sweden’s 19 strikes in qualifying, including three of the four goals that downed Denmark 4-3 on aggregate.
However, Ibrahimovic’s heroics in front of goal have been frequently wiped out by a soft-centred defence that struggles against pace and counter-attacks.
Known for his loyalty, Hamren still includes ageing stalwarts such as Sebastian Larsson and Kim Kallstrom in his squad but he is gradually introducing new players.
These include six of the side who were victorious at last year’s U21 European Championships in the Czech Republic, and a number of players with Champions League experience with Malmo FF.
Celta Vigo forward John Guidetti has won plenty of praise in Spain and Emir Kujovic topped the scoring charts in Sweden’s Allsvenskan in 2015, netting 21 goals as his unfancied IFK Norrkiping side won the title.
They also have plenty of cover on the wings and at full back but it is choosing the best pairings at the centre of defence and in central midfield that will give Hamren his biggest headaches.
With the manager due to step down after the tournament and rumours that Ibra’s international retirement is looming, the Swedes will want to mark what seems like the end of an era with qualification.
Editing by Neil Robinson