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Jun 16, 2009

Berg provides statement of intent

No football tournament is really worthy of the name until it has demonstrated its love of dancing, flags and colourful exhibitions of choreography via the opening ceremony. Unlike the bloated extravaganzas that usually mark the start of the senior competitions, the opening ceremony for the under-21 European Championships was mercifully brief, reflecting the feel of the championships as a miniature version of the one the grown-ups get to play.

Involving barefoot children and lots of flags, the only hint of bizarre artistic influence was a kind of football headed Chinese dragon that wobbled around the pitch for a bit as the official song of the tournament (Get up and Go by Karen Deberg, as you were no doubt desperate to know) began.

The whole thing took less than five minutes, and the first half hour at Malmö's New Football Stadium would probably have been more of a spectacle if the children and flags had stayed on, so dull was the football. There was only one real scoring opportunity, when Emir Bejrami blazed wide after being played through by Markus Berg, but when Sergei Kislyak leathered the ball home from 30 yards out, the game livened up considerably and was effectively decided in the fifteen minutes before half time.

"It's going to be great - we've been looking forward to this for a long time," joint Sweden coach Jörgen Lennartsson had said before the game. "We're ready for it. We will have 20,000 fans behind us and we want to give them attractive football."

It took a while for them to get going, but eventually his players got the idea. Markus Berg, who had announced his intention to be the top scorer at the tournament before the game, made a good start on that objective against Belarus. The Groningen striker had played for the full national team against Malta last week, and so was rested before this game along with Rasmus Elm, who also played in the senior side's match against Denmark.

Sweden's equaliser was somewhat fortuitous, with a massive deflection from Aleksandr Martynovich ensuring Elm's long distance strike ended up in the net, but after that Sweden played some fantastic stuff.

"I think we played an OK game," Berg told journalists afterwards. "We expected a little bit more from Belarus, but they didn't play as well as I thought they would. For myself, I scored three goals and it's really nice. I had a couple more chances but we played really well and it was a lot of fun today."

The fun was certainly a theme among the crowd in Malmö, with the 14,623 crowd giving a warm welcome to home town heroes Labinot Harbuzi and Guillermo Molins when they came on in the second half, as well as a good reception for Ola Toivonen, who left Malmö FF in January to join PSV Eindhoven.

Unfortunately this festive atmosphere did not extend to the small but hapless Belarusian contingent. Near the end of the match all Belarusian flags and banners were removed from fans in the crowd, apparently because someone spotted a flag representing opponents of Aleksandr Lukashenka's regime.

The order was passed along to remove the flag, but somewhere along the line changed into a general fatwa against all Belarusian emblems and banners, including a Dinamo Minsk banner and other flags with Cyrillic script. The confusion was emblematic of the Belarus performance, with their team seemingly in disarray for long periods. Coach Yuri Kurnenin had no answers after the game.

"For the first 35 minutes we were equal, but then something inexplicable happened and we made individual and collective errors," an ashen-faced Kurenin ventured. "Then we had a lot of possession, but we were trying to attack and left a lot of space for Sweden to counter-attack."

"The Swedish players were much more organised and had more desire to win the game, and it was reflected in the result."

Joint Swedish coach Jörgen Lennartsson - quite possibly part of the most avuncular coaching duo in international football along with his colleague Tommy Söderberg - was happy with his side's performance.

"I'm very satisfied with the result, of course,'' he said. ''Most of the possession was with Belarus, because they are a very skilful team with a lot of passing quality, but that's no problem for us, if they have the ball in their own half. It was part of the plan that they can have the ball in their own half, so long as we have a good attacking plan when we get the ball."

There was a question about a possible mental weakness among the Swedish players, as they've conceded first in their last three matches, but Lenartsson dismissed the concern.

"I'm very satisfied that we've won three games in a row when we've conceded first. In the Champions League that only happens in 9% of matches, and we've done it three times which is very good for our confidence and team spirit."

Lennartsson was also quick to pass on praise to the coaches of his mainly domestic-based players, many playing for a big move in this tournament, but quite possibly ready for the step up anyway.

"I think this victory should be dedicated to the coaches in Allsvenskan who work with these players, because they have developed the players in the clubs, and they are working hard on the training fields every day with these players."

Belarus now go on to a difficult looking game against Serbia on Friday, while the Swedes take on Italy in Helsingborg. After the pessimism displayed by their coach, it would be difficult to imagine the Belarusians getting much from their game, but for Sweden everything looks possible.

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