Sweden: luck on their side

uefa.com's team guide to UEFA European Under-21 Championship contenders Sweden.

By Jan Juhlin

Sweden very nearly kissed goodbye to their hopes of qualifying for this summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship in the qualifying stages, having stood just three minutes from elimination on a frantic October night in Eskilstuna last year.

Latvia fightback
Torbjörn Nilsson's side went into their final Group 4 qualifier at home against Latvia needing to better Hungary's result against visiting Poland in order to qualify for the play-offs behind the Poles, but having taken a 2-0 lead they allowed Latvia to pull themselves level - while the match in Budapest was also all square.

Hysén heroics
But a combination of a headed 87th-minute winner from Sweden's Tobias Hysén and a last-minute clincher for Poland in Hungary earned Nilsson's team a play-off with Spain. Senior internationals Kim Källström and Andreas Isaksson were drafted into the team as they beat the Spaniards 2-0 at home. Then, despite going behind after 23 minutes in the second leg, Sweden managed to come away from Spain with a creditable 1-1 draw after Tobias Hysén had once again scored a late goal.

Talebinejad hat-trick
Sweden had started their qualifying campaign brightly, seeing off Latvia 4-0 in a game where Västra Frölunda IF's Arash Talebinejad scored a hat-trick, and the team followed this up by beating Hungary 1-0. But the wheels temporarily came off in the return match against the Hungarians as Imre Szabicz notched a sensational hat-trick inside six minutes that turned an evenly-matched game on its head and saw Hungary run out 5-2 winners.

Impressive Poles
Sweden easily saw off San Marino 5-1, but struggled against a far stronger Polish side. Fielding a defensive formation with five men in midfield, Sweden failed to create enough scoring opportunities and were held to a 1-1 draw in Sundsvall. Then came a potentially crucial oversight by Nilsson which cost his side three points.

Costly mistake
Sweden were in a strong position after brushing aside San Marino 6-0, but Nilsson mistakenly fielded Stefan Ishizaki in the match - despite the fact that the player was suspended. San Marino were handed a 3-0 win as a result of the blunder and Sweden were suddenly faced with an uphill task. But the late turnaround kept alive the Swedish dream.

Fast-flowing football
The entire qualifying campaign was characterised by a creative, fast-flowing game. Strikers Johan Elmander and Babis Stefanidis, supported by the likes of Alexander Farnerud and Johan Andersson, were the key players. In truth, the fact that Sweden sometimes seemed slightly lightweight and inexperienced probably cost them victory in the group, but a strong belief in their own ability eventually saw them safely through.

'Olympic ambition'
Nilsson received a boost with the news that Elmander was overlooked for the senior team travelling to UEFA EURO 2004™, enabling him to feature for Sweden's U21 string in Germany. "We've been working hard during two years to reach these finals," Nilsson said. "Now we have to focus on our next goal, which is to reach the Olympic Games [by finishing at least third], something which has always been our prime target."

For profile of coach Torbjörn Nilsson click here