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Sweden and the Netherlands could give us a scintillating quarter-final when they meet at the Estádio Algarve in Faro-Loulé on Saturday. Each team's defenders face an evening on red alert as some of the more potent striking talents at UEFA EURO 2004™ go head-to-head.
Both sides have already given notice of their abundant attacking promise in Portugal, and no one can call the result with confidence. In any event, it would be something of a surprise if we were to see a contest with a paucity of goals. Sweden come to the quarter-finals having been one of the most effective all-round teams in the group stages.
They began in coruscating form with a five-goal salvo against Bulgaria. A marvellous Zlatan Ibrahimovic strike gave them a draw against Italy, and a last-gasp leveller in their least impressive performance to date against neighbours Denmark helped them into the last eight as Group C winners.
The Netherlands required the assistance of group rivals to make it this far, the Czech Republic's win against Germany giving the 'Oranje' a vital helping hand at the same time that the Dutch were convincingly seeing off Latvia. After an opening draw against Germany, the Dutch let slip a two-goal lead to lose a five-goal classic against the Czechs.
This quarter-final provides an opportunity to observe some of Europe's most outstanding strikers, including Ruud van Nistelrooij who scored four times in Group D. Dick Advocaat, who will be coaching the national team for a record 54th time, has an embarrassment of attacking riches, with quality front-runners like Roy Makaay, Patrick Kluivert and Pierre van Hooijdonk confined to the substitutes' bench. Makaay, however, came on to fire the third goal against Latvia.
Sweden provide attacking substance of their own in the outstanding Henrik Larsson, scorer of three goals including one of the goals of the competition, a diving header against Bulgaria, and Ibrahimovic. "We understand each other on and off the pitch," said Larsson of the partnership. "He does things I didn't think were possible."
The Scandinavians enter the match full of confidence. "I think the fact we got through the group stage means that some of the pressure on us will ease," said captain Olof Mellberg. "In the knockout stages it's a different kind of pressure and a different kind of preparation, and I'm sure we are ready for the task."
Lucic to play?
Sweden could be without both preferred full-backs as Erik Edman is suspended and Teddy Lucic injured, meaning former striker Alexander Östlund could get his chance. "Teddy will train today and then we'll make a decision," said co-coach Lars Lagerbäck. Tobias Linderoth should return from suspension, while Mattias Jonson and Anders Svensson are expected to start.
Van Nistelrooij predicted more hard work for his side, saying of Sweden: "They're playing the best football in the tournament so far, and their strikers are in form and have scored a lot of goals. We have to make sure we control them." At least Advocaat can prepare for the game in a more relaxed frame of mind after the Czech defeat had caused much soul-searching.
Dutch central defender Wilfred Bouma missed the game against Latvia because of an achilles problem. Medical staff said he could play against Sweden with the aid of painkillers, but he will not be risked. Frank de Boer will deputise again.
Expect both rearguards to be subject to the sternest of tests in Faro. Sweden's aim is to confirm their burgeoning reputation in this final round. The Dutch can often fall victim to the fragility that makes a mockery of their undoubted pedigree, but have the quality to examine every facet of Sweden's credentials as potential European champions.
Netherlands (probable): Van der Sar; Reiziger, De Boer, Stam, Van Bronckhorst; Seedorf, Davids, Cocu; Van der Meyde, Robben; Van Nistelrooij.
Sweden (possible): Isaksson; Nilsson, Jakobsson, Mellberg, Lucic; Jonson, Svensson, Linderoth, Ljungberg; Ibrahimovic, Larsson.
Referee: Luboš Michel (SLO).
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