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Hamren expects playoff thriller

Updated: 2013-11-14 08:19
By Reuters in Stockholm ( China Daily)

Sweden coach coy about buying his victory cigars

Sweden coach Erik Hamren said it is sad that either Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss the World Cup finals, but predicts the playoff between Portugal and Sweden will be a "thriller".

The teams meet in Lisbon on Friday in the first leg, with the return match four days later at Friends Arena in Stockholm.

"It's fantastic for all football fans. They are two world-class players. It's sad that one of them is going to miss the World Cup in the summer, but it's going to be a real thriller," Hamren said.

"They are two players who can do the little extras to win the game for their country. But I'm sure it's going to be Zlatan who does that for us."

Hamren said he had a "good feeling" as soon as his side was drawn to play Portugal.

"It was strange. They were the highest-ranked and probably the toughest team to meet, but I had a good feeling when I saw Portugal-Sweden.

Hamren expects playoff thriller

"I hope it was the right feeling. We'll see."

Hamren said he would not be changing his preparations, but that his team would need to be "good for four halves" to advance to Brazil.

Given Ibrahimovic's form at Friends Arena and the fact the deciding game will be played there, Hamren has every right to be confident.

The Sweden captain has produced an array of spectacular goals at the team's new home ground, even if the winner against Austria that put Sweden into the playoffs was one of his simpler finishes.

Ibrahimovic has recently been bothered by a knee injury, but following a hat-trick for Paris Saint Germain against Nice last weekend it does not seem to hinder him too much.

Famed for his sharp suits and a penchant for victory cigars, Hamren said he had not yet bought a celebratory cigar in anticipation of making it to Brazil.

"No, but I am going to buy some soon," he said with a smile. "We always make sure to have a supply in case we win."

Extra big

Meanwhile, Iceland's laid-back Swedish coach Lars Lagerback has little doubt what beating Croatia in the World Cup playoffs would mean to one of the smaller teams in European soccer.

"Because they haven't made it to a final tournament before, it makes it extra big for them," he said before the first leg in Reykjavik on Friday.

"From being a small country and not believing it in the beginning, it's bigger in that way," said the 65-year-old veteran who took Sweden to five major championships in 11 years and coached Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

"They didn't have any huge hopes after a few tough years. If we do it, it would mean a little more than qualifying with Sweden."

Lagerback showed his usual modesty, playing down his own role and saying there were many factors resulting in the tiny island nation being on the brink of qualification.

"Six or seven years ago they built seven full-size indoor pitches," said the coach.

"That means they are able to train and play football year-round.

"Then there has been a generation of young players who went to the 2011 European U-21 finals in Denmark. They are the framework of the team now. A lot of them have gone to good clubs and they are all playing."

In previous years even the most ardent soccer fan would be hard-pressed to name an Icelandic player other than former Barcelona and Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen.

But the likes of Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Ajax) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (Tottenham Hotspur) are starting to put the country on the soccer map.

Lagerback said because resources are limited in Iceland, he does his own video analysis of opponents - a task usually given to the coach's staff.

He splits his time between the two capital cities, working as a soccer pundit for cable TV station Viasat in Stockholm before heading over to Iceland for weeks at a time.

Success has also led to a huge growth in interest in the team.

Tickets to Friday's match sold out in two hours, contrary to many previous internationals.

Lagerback's pride in reaching the playoffs is obvious, but he is not content to stop there.

"We have been underdogs the whole time. Many asked me when I took the job, 'Why take Iceland? What chance do you have?'

"If we succeed now, when nobody has given us a chance - you heard the playoff draw, everyone wanted us - if we do that, it would mean a little more to me than qualifying with Sweden."

 Hamren expects playoff thriller

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic smiles during a training session at Friends Arena in Stockholm on Tuesday. The Swedish soccer squad will face Portugal on Friday in a qualifying playoff match for the 2014 World Cup. Anders Wiklund / TT News Agency / Reuters

(China Daily 11/14/2013 page23)

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