Tuesday 27 February 2018, 16:31

Strong spine underpins Swede dreams

  • Sweden heading to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years

  • Central ‘spine’ of the team proved a big factor in qualifying success

  • FIFA.com profiles four of the players thriving down the centre

Sweden are not a team built on star players, and nor was their memorable FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign. But while the days when drab performances would be illuminated by stellar names such as Ibrahimovic, Larsson, Ljungberg and Brolin are now long gone, the Swedes have prospered nonetheless.

“We have a good group, a good team and we work hard together,” Janne Andersson said of the side that has taken Sweden to its first World Cup in 12 years. “We are also tactically smart and we have to be that way no matter who we play. We are strong together.”

However, while Andersson’s side may be greater than the sum of its parts, much of the strength to which he refers emanates from a solid central ‘spine’.

At the base of that spine is goalkeeper Robin Olsen and centre-half Andreas Granqvist, the team’s captain, both of whom started all 12 of Sweden’s Russia 2018 qualifiers. Further forward, Marcus Berg has proved a potent and prolific successor to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Jakob Johansson – scorer of the solitary, decisive goal in the play-off win over Italy – is emerging as a key man in midfield.

With the World Cup looming, FIFA.com profiles these four central figures.

THE KEEPER: ROBIN OLSEN Sweden has a history of producing goalkeeping stalwarts, with Thomas Ravelli and Andreas Isaksson – mainstays of recent decades – having won a combined 276 caps. Olsen, a giant, commanding figure at 6ft 6ins, has emerged as a worthy successor to Isaksson, with back-to-back shutouts against Italy capping an excellent qualifying campaign for the FC Copenhagen No1.

Did you know? Though born in Malmo, Olsen was also eligible to play for Denmark through his parents and discussed doing so with the Danes’ former coach, Morten Olsen. However, in 2014 he opted for Sweden and made his debut early the following year.

In his words “I‘m striving to play in the Premier League or the Bundesliga. But right now, my feeling is that I want to go to the World Cup and experience it, and play well for Sweden there.” Olsen on his ambitions

THE CENTRE-HALF: ANDREAS GRANQVIST Sweden’s captain was a true colossus in their play-off victory, repelling Italian attacks with an impressive blend of tough tackling, aerial dominance and astute positioning. His leadership on and off the park has been lauded by Andersson, and the 32-year-old Krasnodar defender received further recognition in November when he ended Ibrahimovic’s decade-long reign as Sweden’s Player of the Year by picking up the award for the first time.

Did you know? Granqvist vowed to his team-mates that they could shave his head if Sweden qualified for the World Cup, and he lived up to his promise, allowing John Guidetti and Victor Lindelof to do the honours in the San Siro dressing room.

In his words “I’m the kind of person who talks more on the pitch and in the dressing room than in everyday life. I like being a leader and inspiring my team-mates with positive energy.” Granqvist on his role as captain

THE CENTRAL MIDFIELDER: JAKOB JOHANSSON Composed in possession and tigerish in the tackle, Johansson’s defensive attributes made him an increasingly valuable figure for Sweden in a campaign in which they faced no fewer than three former World Cup finalists. But the 27-year-old is also well capable of contributing in an attacking sense, as he showed with his wildly celebrated winning goal against Italy in the European play-off. Though he suffered a knee injury in that tie, Sweden will be dearly hoping that he returns to fitness in time to make his mark again in Russia.

Did you know? Johansson has played for Greek side AEK Athens since 2015 but is out of contract at the end of the season, so could play his way to a big move at Russia 2018. English Premier League club Crystal Palace are among those reported to be interested.

In his words “I looked to take up a good position outside the area in order to avoid the traffic. When the ball arrived, I just tried to keep it down.” Johansson on his decisive strike against the Italians

THE CENTRE-FORWARD: MARCUS BERG After his appointment, Andersson asked his players to “step up to the challenge” of filling the team’s Zlatan-shaped void. Berg quickly responded, scoring eight goals in as many qualifiers to fire the team into a position of strength in Group A. At 31, the big striker is now looking forward to his first-ever World Cup.

Did you know? Berg helped himself to four goals in Sweden’s 8-0 demolition of Luxembourg, becoming the first player to score four or more for the national team since Ibrahimovic against England in 2012.

In his own words “The last two years have been my best with the national team.” Berg, speaking to FIFA.com