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Sep 13, 2007

Sweden celebrate a beautiful own goal

'Book your holidays, buy your tickets, pack your clogs and German phrasebook – we are in the European Championships.'

That was the message from Aftonbladet writer Simon Bank after Sweden's 0-0 draw at home to Denmark on Saturday. Three points clear of third place Northern Ireland with a game in hand, the prevailing wisdom in Sweden is that they have as good as qualified.

To be mathematically sure they will need 7 points, or less Northern Ireland fail to win in Stockholm on the 17th of October. Trips to Spain and Liechtenstein and a home game against Latvia complete their run-in, so the Swedish confidence is justified.

After the farcical scenes that ensued when Sweden played in Copenhagen, the Swedish football federation must be relieved that people are talking about the football rather than any pitch invasion.

The match in Denmark ended with the score at 3-3, after a Danish fan ran onto the pitch and swung a punch at referee Herbert Fandel. The German official had just awarded a penalty to Sweden and sent off Christian Poulsen, the loveable Danish midfielder.

Fandel left the pitch and refused to return, abandoning the game. UEFA eventually awarded a 3-0 victory to Sweden and forcing Denmark to play the rest of their home games at least 250km away from Copenhagen.

The game itself had been a pulsating end to end contest, as was the game on Saturday. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was particularly impressive, inspiring former Swedish international Glenn Strömberg to lavish praise on the Inter striker'.

'As a target man or a team player he is the best forward in the world,' said the former IFK Göteborg player. 'His rapport with Elmander was fantastic. I've never seen those two play so well together.'

'He feels very fresh and strong in his body and he does a lot more running. I think that the physical condition is now excellent, and so the psychological side will also be good.'

Ibrahimovic made several wonderful passes and created numerous opportunities for himself and others, but could not break the deadlock. Near the end the ball broke to him a couple of metres from goal, but instead of heading the ball goalwards he tried an elaborate overhead kick.

That is Zlatan. He can do things that make your jaw drop in wonder, and frequently does, but sometimes makes the wrong decision when a simple move could bring greater rewards. That is ridiculous nit picking though, the man is clearly a genius.

Northern Ireland's inability to win away from home will probably cost them the chance of qualifying. Two away defeats, 1-0 to Latvia in Riga and 2-1 to Iceland in Reykjavik have seen them slide to 3rd place, 3 points behind Spain and Sweden.

Their campaign had started so well, with wins in Belfast against Spain and Sweden. But things have gone downhill since Lawrie Sanchez resigned in May. The Ulstermen were top of the group at that stage, but Nigel Worthington has been unable to maintain the momentum.

Hopes were high before the game in Riga, as thousands of fans travelled to support the men in green. They made quite an impression on the Latvians.

'On Thursday they sent a green army,' said a report in the Latvian daily Diena. 'On Friday bottles, glasses and bricks were flying through the air and 6 people were arrested.'

This was acknowledged as a small minority of the Northern Irish support, and the events of Saturday were viewed much more positively.

Like Northern Ireland, Latvia is a divided society. Riga has a large population of Russian speakers, many of whom feel neglected by the government of the Baltic republic. This has bred division and conflict, and some extremist groups look to exploit these grievances.

On Saturday a demonstration was planned in central Riga, and 500 hardy souls gathered to express their displeasure with the Latvian government. Askolds Rodins, writing for Diena, was happy that the Irish fans were there to distract attention.

'To the demonstration was added a new ingredient: 2,000 Irish football fans,' wrote Rodins. 'Everybody at the demonstration stared open mouthed at this happy torrent of fans and forgot why they were there. Even if the demonstration's organisers had wanted to say something important, they knew nobody was paying attention any more.'

The spirit of reconciliation spread to the Northern Ireland team, who meekly handed Latvia their first victory in 5 games. The Latvians had an awful run of form prior to this game, including defeats to Moldova and Liechtenstein.

The reaction to this win showed some of the differences in outlook between different sections of Latvian society. The Russian newspaper Telegraf shrugged it's metaphorical shoulders and said 'so, we are not bottom of the group any more', whereas the Latvian language Diena was proud that 'Latvia has finally shown it's temper and stomach for the fight'.

While they celebrated leapfrogging Liechtenstein, the Northern Irish were in Iceland for a crucial game. On Saturday Spain had secured a 1-1 draw in Reykjavik with a late Iniesta strike after a disappointing performance, which put them level with Northern Ireland.

The Spaniards won 2-0 against Latvia in Oviedo, but Worthington's men conceded a heartbreaking Keith Gillespie own goal in injury time to give the Icelanders all three points. Former Sheffield Wednesday winger Chris Brunt had struck the bar earlier on when they were 1-0 down, but Northern Ireland just couldn't do enough and went down to an agonising defeat which leaves them with a mountain to climb.

On the way home from Iceland Gillespie and George McCartney were involved in a fight on the plane in which 'punches were thrown' and a 'verbal exchange' frayed tempers. The Irish Football Association (IFA) said they will take 'appropriate action', which could mean almsot anything. It has not been a happy week for the IFA, who will almost certainly now miss out on the financial windfall of European Championship qualification.

After showing promise for the underdogs, only one country in this group is now smiling. Spain are struggling to find form, Denmark have been shell-shocked since the rotund pitch invader tried to stick one on the referee, Northern Ireland are in freefall and Iceland have left it too late to find form.

While the others stumble towards Euro 2008, Sweden are left to spread joy, happiness and clogs (Swedish clogs are subtly different to Dutch ones, and worn as part of traditional costumes) around Europe. Yesterday they were in Montenegro for a friendly against UEFA's newest member, and Aftonbladet called up Johan Elmander for his reaction to the happy news from Reykjavik.

'It was a really beautiful own goal from Sweden's point of view,' said the Lyon midfielder. 'And great that Iceland won, too.'

The only way Sweden are likely to mess up this group is if they have to play the rest of their games in those Swedish clogs. Even then you wouldn't bet against them, given the way Northern Ireland are imploding right now.

*Additional reporting by Olga Dragileva.

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