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Euro 2017

With Germany in rearview, Sweden can’t underestimate other group mates

The 2017 EUROS are Pia Sundhage's last as coach of Sweden. (Getty Images)

The 2017 EUROS are Pia Sundhage’s last as coach of Sweden. (Getty Images)

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS – Sweden will look to bounce back against Russia on Friday in Deventer, following an unorthodox performance against Germany on Monday in Breda. Pia Sundhage’s team created scoring opportunities in the opening stages of the match, but for the most part lacked creativity, organization, and pace. Settling for a 0-0 draw earned them a valuable point but also left many unanswered questions.

Forward Stina Blackstenius provided a spark off the bench in the second half when the Montpellier HSC product was able to get in behind the German defense and cause problems. Why she didn’t start the match from the opening whistle remains a mystery.

“No, it’s hard to decide,” said Blackstenius when asked if she should have started. “I’m just happy that I played the thirty minutes that I played.”

The 21-year old offered another option for a stagnant and slow-to-evolve Swedish attack. Nilla Fischer knows that EURO 2017 is just the beginning for a player with the quality that Blackstenius has. It’s only a matter of time before she arrives as the next Swedish star.

“Yeah absolutely,” said Fischer when asked if Blackstenius could have a breakout tournament. “I think all of our forwards are really quick, strong players. Stina is hard to play against. Especially when she comes in and you’re a little bit tired, and she’s really strong and fast. She’s one of the players that can make a big difference for us.”

If Sweden is going to get a result against Group B leaders, Russia, they will almost certainly have to improve on corners. Sweden had six corners, but ultimately did nothing with them. They looked disjointed and unaware of the actual tactical plan.

“It was bad,” said Sundhage. “It’s funny because we practiced quite a bit. It will not be okay against Russia.”

Manchester City Ladies forward Kosovare Asllani took one corner in the second half after Olivia Schough departed with a hamstring injury. (Schough is expected to be fit to play against Russia.) Asllani knows that Sweden will have to be better on corners if they are to advance to the knockout round. Sweden has too much height not to be threatening to score.

“Yeah, I think I took one corner,” said Asllani. “Obviously, corners and free kicks is a possibility to score. We want to improve that because we have a lot of good headers that are waiting for the delivery. We need to just give them better balls. Yeah, we need to improve that.”

It’s not only when Sweden has possession that set piece strategies need to be on point. Fischer was quick to point out that Russia could be just as dangerous in the box.

“When we defend against set pieces, we really need to be aware of the players that go for the body, and block so they don’t get to the ball. When we have it, we could really focus and go hard,” Fischer said.

By playing Germany first, Sweden have played their toughest Group B match right out of the gate. If they can get a result against Russia and Italy, which they should, Sweden could be in line to top Group B. Asllani isn’t willing to look that far ahead.

“As we got the toughest game possible as the first game,” said Asllani, “we got one point, so now we just need to focus on Russia and Italy and not underestimate them. We really have to take it one game at a time if we want to go far in this tournament. I think we can go far in this tournament.”

If Sweden is to make it to the quarterfinals, semifinals, and perhaps the final match, they need their top players to be difference makers. Blackstenius and Fridolina Rolfö are certainly the next generation in the pipeline of Swedish talent, but there must be some magic left in the boots of Lotta Schelin, Caroline Seger, and Fischer.

The media covering Sweden has had Ikea knives out from the start of the tournament. After playing a lackluster match against Germany, the critics are harping on days gone by. Criticisms about the lack of pace, ideas, and dynamics within the offense have only been growing louder.

“I mean what can I say,” said a perplexed Asllani. “I’d say our older players are our best players. They are our most important players. I would not say they’re too old. I think they could go on and play another tournament if they wanted.”

Sundhage will be stepping down from her post as Sweden’s coach following the tournament. The players would love to send her out on top with a medal. Much has been made about Sundhage leaving and the take over of Peter Gerhardsson as the new coach.

Is there an extra bit of motivation for Sweden to ‘Win it for Pia’?

“I think even if it wasn’t Pia’s last championship, it would mean a lot for us as a national team to win. We never won a medal two championships in a row. You talk a lot about Pia leaving, but like every other championship, you want to win a medal for the team and for the country, but it’s going to be different without Pia,” admitted Fischer.

Sweden can look to the 2016 Rio Olympic games for inspiration. They bunkered down, played defensive football, and bothered a lot of teams, fans, and pundits. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t play an attractive brand of football because they won silver.

“It would be the perfect ending for the team and for her,” said Asllani of Sundhage’s departure. “We know that we can’t get ahead our ourselves. We need to take it one game at a time. As we saw in the Olympics, if we are able to do that and fight as we did, we could definitely be up in the top and fighting for those medals.”

Sweden has that magic about them. You feel that on their day they should be filling the back of the net with a regularity of goals

Instead, they mess about, take their time, and methodically advance to the knockout stage and beyond. It’s not how they manage to get results, but that they do. Sweden looks too old and slow, but don’t write them off.

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