Battle of the studious Swedes
Sweden coach Lars Lagerback believes England will live to regret the day they opted to severe their ties with his compatriot, Sven Goran Eriksson.
The English tabloid press have made a hobby out of hounding the gullible Eriksson during his turbulent five-and-a-half year reign as England head coach and while the ice-cool Swede has been more than a little reckless in his activities at times, Lagerback suggests the Football Association's move to oust their discredited coach after the World Cup will backfire.
In an exclusive interview with Soccernet, the studious Lagerback suggests Eriksson was never likely to receive unanimous support in England due to the fact that he didn't own a British passport. However, he believes his achievements since succeeding Kevin Keegan back in 2001 should not be ignored.
'It seemed as if the English media wanted Sven to lose at times and that was a shame,' states the Sweden boss.
'You would have to ask the Swedish media about the relationship I have with them, but I don't see the same level of negative aggression in this part of the world. We don't have people trying to get me to say bad things or anything like that.
'Sven always had a big problem in this job because he was Swedish,' continues Lagerback. 'My view is that the first priority when you are looking for a national team manager is that he has to be from the country in question. Sven's results have been excellent and no one can complain about that, but he is not English and this can never change.
'Sweden played Ireland in Steve Staunton's first game as manager a few weeks ago and people were questioning how he would get along. He has no experience as a coach, so it will not be easy for him, that's for sure, but he is a proud Irishman and that is a great starting point. The people already associate with him. If you appoint a foreigner as your national team manager, it can be even more complicated as he needs to prove he appreciates the culture of the country he is going to work in.
'When I look at England now, they are a better side than when Sven took over and they will be one of the main contenders for the World Cup finals. I would say he has done a good job, whatever his critics suggest and maybe England will miss him when he leaves.'
It came as no surprise to either Eriksson, or his good friend Lagerback, when the names of England and Sweden were placed together in the opening round of the World Cup for the second tournament in succession.
Fate has a habit of dealing such hands in a sport that will grip the world once again this summer and the Group B clash between two Swedish managers in Cologne on June 20th promises to be one of the highlights in the opening round.
Lagerback admits he was disappointed to be paired with England once again as he views Eriksson's side as one of the outstanding favourites to lift the World Cup, yet he remains cautiously optimistic of coming through the game unscathed.
'The group as a whole is not so bad, but it would have been nice to avoid playing England once again,' he continues. 'They have so many strong players and from back to front, you see a great team. Defensively England are very strong, they maybe have the best midfield in the competition and plenty of ability in the forward players.
'This is why I say they are one of the true favourites for the World Cup. The good thing for me is that by the time we come to play them once again, we will have played our opening two games. If we collect six points from Trinidad and Tobago and Paraguay, it will make the final game less crucial. That's a position I'm hoping to be in.'
The fact that England have failed to beat Sweden in eleven attempts since 1968 will have little impact on a fixture that always throws up a fascinating clash of styles.
While the English like to play a speedy, attacking style of football that revolves around a host of star names, the Swede's generally adopt a much more conservative approach, working as a unit and looking to Juventus forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic to turn a game in their favour.
Often accused of being a difficult player to handle, Lagerback suggests the talisman of Swedish football is no such thing, insisting the placid temperament of his players ensures that his job is easier than the majority of the 32 coaches heading to Germany.
'I have an excellent group who are very much there for the Swedish cause,' he states. 'We are not a team full of big name stars, but Zlatan is the guy we look to give us something else. He can do different things, can change the course of a game in a moment and my feeling is that he is in good shape to enjoy his best major tournament yet in Germany.
'He is a great guy to have around the squad. Some people ask if Zlatan is difficult to coach, but the opposite is true. He is a committed player who has achieved a lot in his career already and he has the respect of the whole dressing room.
'The same is true of guys like Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg, who have progressed so well after making a move to big clubs in major European leagues. Sweden is only a small country and we are proud of the players who represent us every week.'
Sweden's smooth progress through the qualifying campaign may not have stolen too many headlines, but such is their way. Lacking in the spectacular and specialising in the quietly efficient, Lagerback is keen to play down Sweden's hopes in Germany.
'I don't know if it is realistic for us to look at winning the World Cup,' he adds. 'You could say we are as strong as Greece, maybe stronger, and they won Euro 2004, but that was very much a one-off result.
'On our day, there is no doubt that my team are capable of beating anyone, but I pick Brazil as the favourites for this World Cup. England will be strong as well, so it is a shame that we have got to play them so early. Hopefully we will get through the group stages and from there, anything is possible.'
Modest and understated, Lars Lagerback is not the type to court attention and the same is true of his Swedish national team.