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It’s a winner takes all clash in Group A where tournament hosts Sweden meet one of the pre-kick off favourites for outright glory, Serbia. Who will prevail? It’s certain to be an intriguing match pitting in-form Sweden against struggling Serbia.

Kick Off: Tuesday 23rd June, 2009, 20:45 CET, Malmo

Both sides come into this game knowing that a win will see either team through. Which country will go for it first, or will both sides sit back and try and draw the other out before raiding on the counter-attack? 

Sweden stand to lose more potentially after their quick-fire start against Belarus but they also can progress with a draw, whilst Serbia know only a win will suffice. Will that encourage Sweden to eschew the attacking style they’ve adopted so far in favour of a more conservative approach?  Serbia know that a huge improvement is needed, especially in comparison to their lacklustre performance on Friday evening against Belarus. With the loser going home at the end of the game, it promises to be a high-stakes match.

Building On A Solid Start

Sweden came into this tournament as one of the potential unknown factors. With only a few of their 23-man squad plying their trade outside Scandinavia, and the majority hailing from the domestic Swedish league, many pundits were uncertain of the relative abilities and merits of the team. 

However, their flying opening against Belarus last Tuesday answered many questions about the team, indicating that there was plenty of talent available, and they would be a factor for the semi-finals. That convincing 5-1 win against Belarus also settled any potential anxiety in the squad, and drew the Swedish public into the tournament to further support their team. 

Whilst the Swedes were able to respond to the support in the first game, they were less able to do so against Italy last Friday, although even in defeat there were still some encouraging signs. After a promising Swedish start, the Italians took control and dominated the first third of the game with Balotelli’s goal due reward for their excellent opening.  However, the dismissal of the Inter striker shortly after his goal granted Sweden extra room to manoeuvre in, and their late goal will have given them plenty of heart prior to the match against Serbia. 

The performance against Italy should also highlight to the joint Swedish coaching team some areas to potentially concentrate on for the match against Serbia. Whilst Mikael Lustig looked excellent getting forward, the Rosenborg right-back looked a potential weak link in the defence against Italy. Arguably the most culpable for Italy’s first goal after he granted Balotelli too much time and space to turn and shoot, he needs to tighten up the defensive side of his game.

Sweden also spent too much time looking to try and prise Italy open through the centre, playing into Italy’s hands, who were looking to herd their opponents into the middle where they had gathered strength in depth to repel them. Whilst the eventual Swedish goal did come after some intricate build-up play through the heart of the Italian defence, the most prominent factor in the strike came from the slip of Andrea Ranocchia, which allowed Toivonen a clear route to goal. 

With Blackburn Rovers’ left-sided midfielder Olsson on in the second half and Lustig raiding down the right flank, Sweden looked more likely to prise Italy open from the flank, and they may need to consider this route as the primary way to break Serbia down.  With their opposition almost certain to play their customary 4-3-3, a formation with lots of natural width would cause Serbia potentially the most trouble.

Improvement needed

Whilst arguably some tinkering is needed with the Swedish approach, the same can’t be said for Serbia, who really struggled against Belarus during their immensely disappointing 0-0 stalemate.  That result leaves them struggling to qualify, and needing the win against Sweden to see them into the semi-finals. 

The greatest problem that Serb coach Slobodan Krcmarevic faces is that he simply doesn’t have that many players to rotate his squad with, even if he wanted to. Injuries have ravaged this Serb squad, both prior to the tournament, and during it, but that can’t be an excuse in the face of what was a poor performance against Belarus.

Things looked far rosier on Tuesday night after holding, and certainly in the second half outplaying Italy, retaining possession and creating some reasonable chances to break the dead-lock.  Nevertheless the failure to net in either game, is what has really landed Serbia in their current predicament. With only five goals in the last five matches in all competitions, it’s clear the attack needs some fairly close attention.

Ajax forward Miralem Sulejmani has borne a lot of the frustration. The evidently talented striker scored goals freely in Heerenveen, but a move 12 months ago to the Dutch capital has proved less fruitful, when coach Marco van Basten forced Sulejmani into playing a lone striking role. It was a role that clearly didn’t suit the former Partizan player, who is much better playing facing the goal, than with his back to it. The pre-tournament injury to Filip Dordevic meant that Krcmarevic felt obliged to push Sulejmani into this role for the first two matches with mediocre results. 

Whilst the respectable result against Italy spared both the coach and player criticism in the first game, the same can’t be said after the toothless performance against Belarus. This may encourage the Serb management into making some changes in formation or personnel prior to the match against Sweden, where they have to score a goal if they hope to progress. 

A shift in dynamic

Given the way that the games were scheduled Serbia probably knew they would need some sort of result against Sweden in the final game, so in many respects the game plan for them hasn’t changed. However, the relationship between the two teams has altered, with many people now making Sweden favourites to progress to the semis rather than the Serbs. This may suit the young Serbian side better, as they looked overwhelmed by the pressure to perform against Belarus after being seen as the clear favourites to beat their opposition. 

Whilst Sweden haven’t overplayed their role as dark-horses in the group, they are now the ones with the burden of expectation when previously that hadn’t been the case. How both sides respond to this evident change in how they are perceived will be a fascinating aspect to this match and could be a deciding factor.

 

FORM GUIDE

Sweden (includes only results from the main U21 side)

Jun 19 Sweden 1-2 Italy (Euro U-21 Group A Match-day 2)

Jun 16 Sweden 5-1 Belarus (Euro U-21 Group A Match-day 1)

Jun 09 Sweden 2-1 Estonia (Friendly)

Jun 05 Sweden 2-1 Poland (Friendly)

Mar 31 Sweden 0-0 Spain (Friendly)

Serbia

Jun 19 Belarus 0-0 Serbia (Euro U-21 Group A Match-day 2)

Jun 16 Italy 0-0 Serbia (Euro U-21 Group A Match-day 1)

Jun 07 Serbia 4-1 FYR Macedonia (Friendly)

Apr 01 Serbia 1-1 Romania (Friendly)

Mar 27 Serbia 0-0 Ukraine (Friendly)


TEAM NEWS

Sweden

The Swedish management team still have a more or less full squad of players to choose from, although may choose to vary things for their final match. Martin Olsson from Blackburn Rovers made an excellent impression down the left side against Italy after being given a chance in the second half. He may get the nod ahead of Emir Bajrami, who had a disappointing match against Italy and only sporadically impressed in the 5-1 win against Belarus. 

If Sweden really want to use the flanks, Rasmus Elm may well be shifted into the centre of midfield and a more natural winger may be tried in this position, such as home crowd favourites Labinot Harbuzi or Guillermo Mollins, both of whom play their club football in Malmo. Nevertheless after a good start to the tournament, the Swedish management aren’t likely to tinker unduly with the starting XI that has done well until this moment.

Possible line-up (4-4-2): Dahlin – Lustig, Bjarsmyr, Bengtsson, Johansson – Elm, Wernbloom, Svensson, Olsson – Berg, Toivonen

Serbia

It has been an injury-ravaged tournament for the Serbs, but their crisis eased slightly with the second half introduction of Ivan Obradovic against Belarus. He may be in with a chance of a starting XI position against Sweden on the left side of either defence or midfield.

Elsewhere though midfielder Nemanja Matic, who played well against Italy, continues to he sidelined with a toe injury. Furthermore there are still lingering doubts over Tomic, who would be his most natural replacement, after he was confined to only a brief substitute role on Friday against Belarus with an ankle problem.

Elsewhere Kosice midfielder Marko Milinkovic will be lucky to keep his place in the starting line-up after an anonymous first half against Belarus, which saw him hauled off at the break. This may encourage Krcmarevic to give striker Veljovic a chance from the first whistle, and shift Sulejmani to the right side, with Tosic moving over to the left, where he played against Italy.

Possible line-up (4-3-3): Brkic – Petkovic, Pejcinovic, Vukovic, Tomic – Kacar, Smiljanic, Obradovic - Suljemani, Veljovic, Tosic


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Sweden

Right-back Mikael Lustig could play a prominent role in the outcome of the match. As already highlighted, he will need to sharpen up his defensive game, especially with Manchester United winger Zoran Tosic potentially playing down the Serb left. Tosic was one of the few to have a good game against Belarus, and will be encouraged to try and exploit Lustig’s potential defensive weakness. However, Lustig may be able to force his opponent back if he can get forward and support the attack. Therefore the outcome of this personal duel may have a significant bearing on the result of the match. 

Serbia

The Serbian need for goals is evident, and the main onus to score goals will fall on Miralem Sulejmani. The tournament hasn’t seen the best of the Ajax striker, so Serbian fans will be hoping he has reserved his form of the final group match. Possibly playing from a slightly wider position and given licence to drift around, how he links up with Kacar and Smiljanic in the midfield will be crucial. He’ll have a tough time against the Swedish pair of Bjarsmyr and Bengtsson, who have looked pretty solid at the heart of the defence, but if can impose himself on them he may well prosper as the match progresses.


PREDICTION

It’s hard to conceive Serbia playing worse than they did against Belarus, so some sort of improvement must be anticipated.  How much is the question?  Even with their depleted side, Serbia still have enough to trouble Sweden, if they play to their full potential. Therefore to what extent Krcmarevic alters the line-up, an admission that he got it wrong against Belarus, will have a large bearing on the game, as their formation last time out didn’t bring the best out of the side collectively. Sulejmani on his own up front would pose the Swedish back-line little problem, and give them a platform to build their own attacks depriving Serbia of the ball in the process. In the shape of Toivonen and Berg, Sweden have more than enough in attack to give Serbia problems, so this promises to be a very close and potentially entertaining match, which may result in narrow Swedish progression thanks to a draw.

Sweden 2-2 Serbia

Walter Townsend, Goal.com

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