Emil Forsberg upstages Ibrahimovic as Sweden take upper hand vs. Denmark
STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Three talking points from the Friends Arena as Sweden come away 2-1 winners from the first leg of their Euro 2016 play-off against Denmark.
1. Forsberg the star even outshines Ibrahimovic
One attacker undoubtedly dominated Sweden's most important moments in their home win, but it wasn't the man many presumed would decide the tie. In key phases of the contest, winger Emil Forsberg stepped up, scoring the opening goal and assisting the second by drawing a penalty, in a performance that could go a long way towards settling the overall score.
From the kick-off it was apparent that coach Erik Hamren had afforded a degree of freedom to the 24-year-old as he drifted away from his starting position on the left flank, sometimes into the middle, and occasionally even to the right in an attempt to overload that side. Confident on the ball, sharp in his decision making and accurate with his delivery, he rarely put a foot wrong in one of his biggest games as a professional footballer.
It was Forsberg who made a smart secondary run into the box to latch on to Mikael Lustig's cut-back, then sent a tidy finish across goal and away from Kasper Schmeichel to break the deadlock in the 45th minute. That moment completely changed the momentum of the game, putting Sweden on the front foot after a fairly even first half.
The way the forward started the second half was again key, as he sucked in Thomas Kahlenberg with a couple of drops of the shoulder before turning on the afterburners and drawing a penalty out of the defender. Zlatan Ibrahimovic converted the strike from the spot, but in a large part the goal was down to his younger teammate's quality.
With his electric runs and skilful feet, Forsberg was a key player for Malmö in their Champions League campaign in 2014, attracting inevitable interest from elsewhere. When he chose German second division club Red Bull Leipzig as his destination, many in Sweden questioned whether he could have been more ambitious in the level of his destination. Based on Saturday's performance, they may have been right.
2. Nicklas Bendtner doesn't live up to hype
For obvious reasons, Nicklas Bendtner divides opinion, but as one of Denmark's top 10 all-time goalscorers, his record for his nation is difficult to contest. Tonight was not one of his finer performances in the red shirt however. The striker's wastefulness let down some of the good work carried by the other creative players in the Danish side.
While Martin Braithwaite, Christian Eriksen and Viktor Fischer all started encouragingly well for the away team, linking up in the hole and around the Sweden area, Bendtner was largely absent for the first part of the game, only registering his first shot on goal in the 22nd minute. It was a tame effort at that, the Wolfsburg man shooting without power and straight at Andreas Isaksson, despite having time to do better.
He soon wilted again, and only reappeared in the 44th minute to shoot wide after being teed up with a nice diagonal pass from Eriksen into the Sweden area. That had instant repercussions, as Sweden broke and opened the scoring soon after.
In the second half, Bendtner's toils continued. Supplied from the left wing in the 61st minute, his header almost hit the corner flag, and his subsequent attempt to link up with Eriksen came to nothing after his pass was overhit. To put the icing on the cake, he then headed a good corner delivery from Eriksen wide in the 67th minute.
Thankfully for Bendtner, substitute Nicolai Jorgensen's stabbed finish from another corner in the 80th minute means Denmark take a valuable away goal back to Copenhagen for the second leg on Tuesday, but his country can and should expect more from a player who has been the difference for them so many times in the past. If Denmark are going to turn the tie around they will likely need a better performance from their main scorer.
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3. Sweden need a better finisher
One of the biggest decisions Erik Hamren had to make on Saturday was over who would partner Ibrahimovic up front. In his first start for for Sweden against Moldova, John Guidetti made a strong impression, injecting a new degree of energy and finesse in the final third that Ibrahimovic seemed to feed off. When it came to the crunch against Denmark however, Hamren reverted to form, opting for 29-year-old Panathinaikos forward Marcus Berg.
Berg has only scored twice in Euro 2016 qualifying, and against Denmark, it showed. Time after time, the centre-forward was played in, and time after time he either missed the target, or produced a tame shot. When supplied by Kim Kallström from out wide, Berg twice headed over, while when Ibrahimovic dropped deep and dinked a perfectly weighted ball over the top of the Denmark defence into space, the striker bafflingly chose to try and square rather than shoot from five yards. He even managed to deflect a Jimmy Durmaz shot wide when it looked like it would sail into the top corner.
As the years have rolled on, Ibrahimovic has naturally moved slightly deeper when playing for his country, positioning himself outside of the box rather than in it. That shift makes perfect sense as it asks less of the veteran's legs and allows him to better pull the strings in a Sweden side that tends to lack invention in the final third, but it also means that someone else needs to raise their game and pick up some of the goalscoring weight he leaves behind. On the evidence of this campaign, Berg isn't that man.
Sweden got away with it on Saturday thanks to some chaotic Danish defending and Forsberg's brilliant display, but for the return leg Hamren's call on persisting with Berg or making a change could be a defining one for the outcome of this playoff, so important is taking chances at this level.
Guidetti, who has already shown he can finish on the big stage with a goal against Barcelona this season, isn't his only option. Recently called-up Emir Kujovic is in a fine moment of form in front of goal at the moment, having scored 21 goals to win IFK Norrköpping their first Allsvenskan title since the 1990s. Hamren has tools at his disposal. Failing to qualify by failing to use them would be a grave error.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.