Sweden needed more than a little luck to score a pair of victories and keep its qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup on track.
by Chipp Reid
Sometimes it pays to be lucky.
The Swedish men’s national soccer team learned just how much it pays to be lucky as it scored a crucial pair of wins in its campaign to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Sweden looked like anything but a lock to progress to its sixth straight World Cup prior to its matches against Hungary Sept. 5 and Malta Sept. 9. Shaky defense, an anemic offense and lackadaisical play had the Blue and Yellow sitting in fourth in the group behind Scandinavian rival Denmark, European powerhouse Portugal and Hungary. The Swedes had to win just to stay in the hunt for the finals and also needed a little help from the Danes.
Somehow, Lars Lagerbäck’s side got exactly what it needed. Denmark tied Portugal Sept. 5, giving the Swedes a major boost. Unfortunately, it also gave Hungary a boost as the Eastern Europeans eyed their first trip to the finals since 1986. At first, it looked as though Hungary would book that trip at Sweden’s expense.
Sweden grabbed an early lead through Olof Mellberg, who scored in the eighth minute off a corner kick by Kim Källström. The quick goal signaled a 90-minute-plus Swedish onslaught on Hungarian goalkeeper Gabor Babos, but bad luck confounded the visitors seemingly on every shot.
Källström, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Johan Elmander and Tobias Hysén all hit the woodwork or otherwise watched as seemingly sure goals somehow went wide. The bad luck bedeviled young Samuel Holmén as well as the Brøndby IF midfield saw his 75th minute shot carom off the crossbar. Four minutes later, Holmén ran over Hungarian striker Balas Dzsudzsak in the penalty area. Szablolcs Huszti scored on the spot kick and despite their dominance, Sweden was level with Hungary.
Had that score remained, Hungary would have gone four points up on Sweden and cemented its hold on the second spot in Group 1. For 15 minutes – 11 of regulation and four of stoppage time – Hungary was all but set to book its passage to South Africa.
Luck intervened Ibrahimovic blasted a shot on goal that Babos could only deflect. The rebound struck Ibrahimovic in the chest and bounced back into the goal, giving Sweden a last-gasp 2-1 win.
The Swedes needed even more luck against Malta, a side the Blue and Yellow usually handle with ease. Sweden went into the Sept. 9 tilt having outscored Malta 27-3 in its last five meetings. The latest meeting, however, was much more difficult.
Malta mounted a determined defensive stand while Sweden’s bad luck in front of the goal continued. The Blue and Yellow didn’t have a shot on goal for the first 30 minutes of the match, although once Mellberg got his head on a pass from Kim Källström, the Swedes bombarded Maltese goalkeeper Andrew Hogg.
Mellberg, Rasmus Elm, Elmander, Källström and Hysén all shot high or wide as the Blue and Yellow goalmouth frustration deepened. Sweden appeared ready to settle for a scoreless draw – a result that would knock Sweden out of the running for the finals.
Once again, luck saved the Swedes. At the 79-minute mark, Marcus Berg fired a shot across the mouth of the goal off a long throw from Elm. Maltese defender Ian Azzopardi stuck his leg in front of the shot, deflecting it past Hogg for a Swedish goal.
The victory put Sweden into second place in Group 1, three points behind leaders Denmark and two points ahead of Portugal. All three teams have two matches left to play, with Sweden facing Denmark Oct. 10 in a match likely to decide which team advances to Cape Town.