The next generation of Swedish football learned it's not all roses out there after losing in a final playoff for the UEFA U21 European Championship against Switzerland.
by Chipp Reid
The Swedish Under 21 national team failed to live up to its own hype as it crashed out of the qualifiers for the UEFA Under-21 European Championship following an ugly home-and-home series against Switzerland.
The Swedes, with budding superstars Denni Avdic, Emir Bajrami, Jiloan Hamad, Rasmus Jonsson and John Giudetti leading the way, roared through group play to reach the final playoff stage. Sweden, winners of Group 6, faced Switzerland, which won Group 2.
Under the format UEFA adopted for the tournament, which is in Denmark next year, 52 teams played in 10 groups, with the group winners and four best second-place teams advancing to the playoffs. Only seven teams could advance to the finals, where they would join Denmark, which qualified automatically as the host nation.
The Swedes put themselves in a massive hole after they lost the first leg 4-1. Despite outplaying the Swiss for long intervals, the 20-somethings appeared somewhat lackadaisical in front of the goal. Their overconfidence left the Swedes needing at least a 3-0 win Oct. 12 in Malmö if they were to advance.
At first, it looked like the Swedes might pull it off.
Pierre Bengtsson, who plays for Norwegian outfit FC Nordsjælland, put Sweden in front after 15 minutes when he volleyed home a rebound of a Jiloan Hamad free kick. Minutes later Guillermo Molins and Jimmy Durmaz had chances to give the Blagult the margin it needed to reach Denmark, but their shots failed to hit the back of the net.
Sweden came to regret those and other misses as the Swiss defense held firm. Two minutes into the second half, the visitors caught their hosts flat-footed. The Swiss had the kick off to start the second half and they swept down the field before the Swedes could react. Swiss striker Nassim Ben Khalifa struck the equalizer. The goal ended Swedish hopes of advancing and was a somewhat sad end to the tenure of Jorgen Lennartsson as the U-21 coach.
"..we made fools of ourselves", Lennartsson is taking over as manager of Norwegian club Stabaeck. In the end, however, the Swedes had no one to blame but themselves.
“The analysis is spot on that we made fools of ourselves a bit in the first match,” team captain Albin Ekdal said after the match. “When they had chances they scored and we did not. In the first game we gave up two really bad goals and we never recovered.”
Lennartsson agreed with his captain.
“They simply played better than we did. They wanted it more,” he said. “They are a very good team but I think the way we played, especially in the first game, made them seem even better.”
The Swedes traveled to Sion on Oct. 7 for the first leg full of confidence, if somewhat short on players. Bajrami, Giudetti, Ivo Pekalski and Rasmus Elm all missed the game with injuries. Still, Lennartsson had a strong pool of young players from which to select and the Swedes expected more of a holiday than a match. The Swiss didn’t share that outlook.
Fabian Frei needed just two minutes to give Switzerland a 1-0 lead. Xavier Hochstrasser made it 2-0 after 20 minutes and the Swedes found themselves in a fight for their European lives. Molins pulled a goal back five minutes into the second half, giving his team hope. The Swiss dashed those hopes when Adir Mehmedi scored two minutes after Molins to put the hosts up by two goals once more.
Sweden had one more chance to claw its way back into the match with 20 minutes left to play. A Swiss defender sent Avdic sprawling to the ground inside the penalty area and the Elfsborg striker stepped up to the spot to take the penalty kick. The usually sure-footed Avdic, who has 19 goals in the Allsvenskan, put his shot far too close to Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sammer and the 6-foot 5-inch Swiss net minder easily gobbled up the shot.
It was the last chance Sweden would have to get back into the game. Patjam Kasami scored with seven minutes left to play giving the Swiss a 4-1 lead while sending the Swedes home in shame.
“We were still fighting at 3-1,” Lennartsson said. “If we get back to 3-2, anything could happen but we missed on so many chances, then we allowed a really ugly goal. The better team won.”
It could mark the last time one of the most successful Under-21 sides plays together. Most of the players on Lennartsson’s squad are already 21 or 22 and will be ineligible for the next big tournament for young players, the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Dennis Avdic races for a loose ball against Timm Klose during Sweden's 4-1 loss to Switzerland Oct. 7 in Sion. Bildbyrån photo