By Patrick Reilly
Malmo FF arrive in Ireland as overwhelming favourites to defeat Drogheda United in the Europa League first qualifying round. The game is a welcome distraction from the Swedish side's campaign to wrest back the Allsvenskan crown they last won in 2010. Since that title triumph, achieved in the club's centenary year, the southern Swedish outfit have blown hot and cold on the domestic and European front. Dumping out Glasgow Rangers in the Champions League qualifying round two years ago was a highlight. Surrendering their title to sworn local rivals Helsingborgs the same year rather less so.
This season Malmo began on a mission to make up for last year's disappointment where they blew their chances of winning the league in the last two games. Taking 13 points from a possible 15 was an ideal start for Rikard Norling's young team before a flurry of draws halted their progress. Currently, Di Blae reside fourth just two points off the summit.
Malmo's clash against the Drogs on Thursday July 4 is the club's first game in a fortnight since they suffered a surprise 3-1 defeat at home to Hacken, a loss which came only a few days after Malmo had beaten reigning champions Elfsborg. Hacken carved Malmo apart in a series of devastating counter attacks in a match where the hosts were largely on top. Norling has been criticised for failing to learn the lessons from last season's 5-0 away defeat by Hacken where his team was ruthlessly exposed. Indeed, defence has been an issue for Malmo as they have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last nine league outings.
Tactically speaking, since the days of English coaches Bob Houghton and Roy Hodgson in the 70s and 80s, Malmo have long been associated with the 4-4-2 formation. Norling has tended to stick with this approach preferring to partner the explosive striker Tokelo Rantie with another forward. In pre-season he experimented with 4-5-1 against neighbours Nordsjalland in a friendly. However, it proved unsuccessful with their Nordic rivals winning 2-0 and Malmo's performance derided as a 'Danish Disaster' by local media.
Norling, 42, already has two decades worth of coaching experience after his playing career was ended prematurely. The Stockholm native succeeded Roland Nilsson in 2011 and is certainly a great deal more popular with the home supporters than his predecessor, who was viewed with suspicion due to his Helsingborgs past. An enthusiastic advocate of attractive football, he has blooded many youngsters and had to cope with the exit of the best of them; only a handful of players remain from the defeat of Rangers two years ago. Indeed, the average age of the squad which recently faced Elfsborg was just 23.
In terms of personnel, South African striker Tokelo Rantie has been an immediate hit at Malmo, bagging six goals in 13 appearances. Capped for Bafana Bafana, his mazy dribbles and powerful finishing are reminiscent of Tony Yeboah in his heyday. Another player who has the ability to cause Drogheda problems is midfielder Simon Thern. Son of Swedish legend Jonas Thern, the 20-year-old has come of age this season after his controversial move from Helsingborgs. He has looked at ease in central midfield and is already a full international for his country.
Malmo are making all the diplomatic noises in Dublin saying they do not expect Drogheda to be a pushover. In reality, a straightforward win is expected, particularly as the Swedes have recent experience of playing Irish opposition, beating Shamrock Rovers twice in the last couple of years. Victory over the Drogs would set up an intriguing clash with Hibernian in the next qualifying round and the Scandinavians know a thing or two about claiming Scottish scalps in Europe.
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