Sweden vs Finland
As the end of the domestic season draws near, so attention starts to turn back to international football and this international friendly in the Friends Arena in Stockholm could act as an indicator to what we can expect from two Nordic nations at the forthcoming European Championship.
Both certainly have this summer’s tournament on their horizon.
Sweden have been paired with many people’s favourites: Spain, hosts Poland and Slovakia.
Finland, competing in their first ever major tournament, face Denmark, Russia and Belgium.
With players of both countries keen to make an impression, this could be an open-attacking encounter with international friendly highlights to enjoy.
Impressive but inconsistent.
That is probably the best way to describe Sweden who have suffered a blow before a ball has been kicked as they’ll be without the talisman of their national team, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose presence alone would lift any tournament or camp.
In what was probably his final chance to appear at another international competition, his return would have been a real boon for a side whose form following qualification has been less than impressive.
They were drawn along with Portugal and France in the Nations League tournament, where they had a miserable run. In fact, the Swedes lost four consecutive fixtures – their worst streak of results in a century, and finished bottom of the group, below Croatia.
Coach Janne Andersson has named Jordan Larsson, son of goalscoring great Henrik, to replace the injured Ibrahimovic in his 26-man squad. The 23-year-old left-footer has scored 10 goals in 20 league appearances for Spartak Moscow in the Russian Premier League this season to put himself in contention.
The rest of Andersson’s squad is a mix of young talent like 21 year-old Alexander Isak, who netted 16 goals in La Liga for Real Sociedad this season, and older heads such as cult hero and captain Andreas Granqvist, who at 36, is being brought along for his leadership qualities, despite a string of recent injuries.
Their reliance on Ibra is no longer something they can fall back on and, while they should emerge from the group stages, I doubt they can go any further.
Yes, they reached the quarter finals of the World Cup three summers ago but rarely looked like progressing, even against a confident but limited England side.
For Finland just appearing at the delayed Euro 2020 is something of a dream.
Of course, the Covid pandemic meant they’ve had to wait longer than usual for this moment but that will have done nothing to dampen their excitement.
After qualification was assured, Topias Kauhala, a journalist for Finnish sports magazine ELMO, said: ‘After all these years and what Finland has been through as a national team, people have tears in their eyes, grown men. It’s something you haven’t seen in Finnish football before, crying with these emotional moments. It’s a once in a lifetime moment.’
After such jubilant scenes marked their qualifying, it’s hard to imagine what it will be like if they win a game in their Euro 2020 group. Either way, they are bound to liven up proceedings just as Iceland did in this competition five years ago.
Players will be keen to use the forthcoming friendlies to show they are not going to just make up the numbers.
Maiden qualification has marked a change in fortune but also in outlook, and in respect for the sport, in a nation where winter sports rule and where some elements of the Finnish sporting media have been often more ice hockey focused and a little disparaging towards football.
The rise to the brink of qualification has been as rapid as it is impressive and they impressively won their Nations League group, simultaneously earning promotion to League B and sealing the back-stop of a play-off place for Euro 2020.
Now the next chapter of their adventure begins.
Sweden have dominated this fixture which has been played far more than I realised.
The first of 87 contests was actually a friendly played in Helsinki in 1911 which Sweden won 5-2, despite being 2-0 down inside five minutes!
The Nordic nations have met predominantly in friendly encounters but also in a handful of World Cup and European Championship qualifiers and exhibition matches.
Their most recent meeting was a friendly in Finland two years ago which the Finns edged through a Eero Markkanen goal in Qatar.
Their last competitive clash was in a EURO 2012 qualifier which Sweden won 2-1, thanks to goals from Seb Larsson and Martin Olsson.