With Group F wide open following Mexico’s shock win over reigning champion Germany, Sweden and South Korea look to take full advantage Monday as they try to join El Tri atop the group in Nizhny Novgorod.
Sunday’s 1-0 victory by Mexico means everything is to play for as all four teams now have a chance to advance. Sweden is making its first World Cup appearance since 2006, having missed out on South Africa and Brazil.
South Korea is making its ninth consecutive appearance in football’s biggest tournament, but its only two progressions out of group play came with its fourth-place finish as co-host in 2002 and round of 16 exit eight years later.
There is already a hint of controversy to this match as Taegeuk Warriors coach Shin Tae-young admitted his players have been swapping jerseys to keep their strategy under wraps for this contest and made no efforts to hide his reasoning at the press conference.
“In my opinion, I think when the Europeans look at us Asians, I think it could be one of the reasons,” Shin said. “I think we wanted to confuse the Swedish team. That’s why we did that.
“We swapped them around because we didn’t want to show our opponents anything. Ki Sung-yueng is probably known, as is Son Heung-min, but for the other players it might be a little bit confusing.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Sweden ended its 12-year World Cup drought in surprising fashion. The Blagult finished runners-up to France in Group A of UEFA qualifying and then held Italy scoreless over the two-legged playoff, with Jakob Johansson’s goal in the first leg standing as the playoff winner.
When Sweden does qualify for a World Cup, it usually makes it a point to stick around. It has reached the round of 16 in its last two appearances, and before that, finished third in the United States in 1994. The Blagult’s best finish was a runners-up showing as hosts in 1958 when they lost to Brazil in the final.
After storming through second-round qualifying in Asia by winning all eight of its matches by a 27-0 scoreline, South Korea had a tougher time of it in the final round but still directly qualified for Russia by finishing second to Iran in Group A.
The Reds totaled just 11 goals in their 10 qualifiers and lost at both 2022 World Cup host Qatar and China during group play. They barely claimed the automatic berth, drawing Uzbekistan on the final match day while third-place Syria, needing a win at Iran to overtake South Korea, could only get a draw.
South Korea has won just four matches in group play in its eight previous World Cup appearances, with two coming as co-host in 2002. The Reds finished last in Group H in Brazil four years ago, claiming a draw with Russia in their opening matches before losing to Algeria and Belgium.
Both teams are expected to use 4-4-2 formations, but Sweden’s offense has failed to catch since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from international play. Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen continue to be his best options, but the Blagult were shut out in both of their most recent friendlies against Denmark and Peru and scored three goals while going 1-3-2 in the calendar year.
Sweden’s back line is its best asset with Mikael Granqvist and Victor Lindelof teaming in central defense, though Lindelof did have an uneven season at Manchester United. Sebastian Larsson, who is the only player with 100 caps on the squad, will patrol the midfield, and Emil Forsberg will try to use his pace to create opportunities for Berg and Toivonen.
South Korea has a dynamic midfield with captain Ki Sung-Yueng flanked by Lee Jae-Sung and Lee Sung-Woo. Up front, underrated Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min leads the line and is coming off a solid season in England in which he had 18 goals in all competitions. He also has 21 goals in 67 international appearances for the Reds.
Ki is the only centurion on South Korea with 102 caps, while Son is one of five other players with at least 50 appearances.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Sweden – Emil Forsberg (MF)
Though Sweden is in need of a goal-scorer, Forsberg will be counted on to at least create the scoring opportunities that lead to goals. The Leipzig midfielder had 21 assists in the 2016-17 season but struggled through an injury-plagued campaign that saw him total four goals and four assists. Forsberg did have four goals in qualifying for the Blagult, so he can force the issue if Berg and Toivonen are misfiring.
South Korea – Son Heung-Min (F)
Often hidden behind the large spotlight afforded to Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Son has an impressive work rate and has a knack of popping up in the right place at the right time to score goals. He scored seven goals during South Korea’s qualifying process and scored a pair of match-winners in friendlies over the past eight months.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Forsberg is rumored to be in the middle of a bidding war as Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and Juventus are reportedly lining up for his services and pondering the £50 million valuation Leipzig have put on the Sweden international.
With Swansea City relegated from the English Premier League, Ki has already declared he will leave the Wales side, with West Ham and AC Milan reportedly among those showing interest.
Per Ladbrokes, Sweden is listed as a 21-20 favorite, while South Korea gets a return of 3-1 to win. For those who think the match will end level, the odds are 2-1. For first goal-scorers, Berg gets top billing at 7-2, and compatriots Isaac Thelin and John Guidetti are 11-2 while Toivonen is 6-1. Son is South Korea’s top choice at 13-2 odds.
Both teams sputtered in their World Cup run-ups, with South Korea winning just once in its last six matches and being shut out by both Bolivia and Senegal in its final two. While Son enjoyed success in Tottenham, his club teammates are light years better than his country ones, which means he will have to try and win one-on-one battles to find chances to score.
That will be a tall order against Granqvist and Lindelof, and it may mean he plays behind Hwang Hee-chan in a three-quarters role to better link up with Ki in the midfield.
Sweden has the same offensive issues, though its lack of star power is more glaring since Berg and Toivonen are not on Son’s level. Forsberg is going to have to put in a stellar performance and help draw fouls in the final third to make use of his dead-ball skills.
This will be a tight match that will see its share of spurned scoring chances, even if they are of half-quality. But with a chance to move three points clear of Germany before playing them, someone is going to emerge a winner. And it will be South Korea through Son.