"The Portuguese players play in bigger leagues and better teams than our players," said Sweden coach Erik Hamrén ahead of his side's FIFA World Cup play-off. "Portugal have to be favourites in anybody's eyes," added Sebastian Larsson. However, while the odds are against them, Sweden are not betting against getting to Brazil.
With his Sunderland AFC team second from bottom in England's top flight, winger Larsson is a prime example of the circumstances that Hamrén highlighted, with the Sweden squad riddled with representatives of struggling sides. Left-winger Alexander Kacaniklic plays for the Premier League's third-bottom outfit Fulham FC; Sweden's current central defensive pairing comprises Per Nilsson – of 1. FC Nürnberg, bottom of the Bundesliga – and Mikael Antonsson, whose Bologna FC team are one point above the Serie A relegation zone.
Portugal, by contrast, feature three players from Spanish glamour clubs Real Madrid CF and Valencia CF as well as the usual sprinkling of talent from their own domestic big three – FC Porto, Sporting Clube de Portugal and SL Benfica. Larsson almost seemed to be thinking in terms of damage limitation as his side head to Lisbon for Friday's first leg. "I'd rather get beaten 2–1 than 1–0," he said, before adding: "But of course we'd like to get a draw." Goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson observed: "It's difficult to say what would be a good result, but it's important to score."
However, for all the modest talk, Sweden know they are unlikely to be outclassed, with some key individuals on top form. Isaksson has helped modest Kasımpaşa SK clamber up to second in Turkey, four points behind Fenerbahçe SK but above Beşiktaş JK and Galatasaray AŞ. And then there is Zlatan Ibrahimović, whose Paris Saint-Germain team remain unbeaten at the head of the French table – and who has scored 14 goals in eight games in all competitions since the start of October.
The 32-year-old's face will appear on Swedish postage stamps from next year and he received another reminder of the esteem in which he is held in his homeland when receiving his eighth national Player of the Year award on Monday night. "I've got more to give," he promised in his acceptance speech. "So I'll see you all again next year." Should the captain guide Sweden to the World Cup, he can consider number nine to be in the bag.
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