Having failed to reach the knockout stages since 2004, the Swedes will want to build on a point taken from Group E favourites Spain, in order to reach the last 16.
Benefiting from a disciplined defensive effort in holding Spain to a goalless draw in their first fixture, Sweden come into their second full of confidence and in a strong position to qualify.
With Victor Lindelof receiving the award as UEFA’s man of the match in Seville, Janne Andersson’s side were mostly on the back foot – with a competition record of just 15% possession – but also offered a threat at the other end, as Real Sociedad forward Alexander Isak hit the post and then later found Marcus Berg, who spurned a fine chance to snatch all three points.
Incidentally, Isak’s goal in a friendly against the Swedes’ next opponents Slovakia – back in 2017, aged just 17 – made him the youngest ever player to score a senior international goal for the Nordic nation. Now, in the absence of their 39-year-old talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it is likely to be the young striker’s responsibility to break down the Slovakian defence on Friday.
After battling gamely for a point won almost under siege, possession is likely to be more even between two well-matched sides at the Krestovsky Stadium and – with the Blagult having won five of their last six matches – head coach Andersson will expect to put one foot in the final stages by turning over a team to whom Sweden have never lost before.
In fact, they have met Slovakia on five previous occasions altogether – winning twice – while the other three (including the two most recent meetings) ended in draws.
Slovakia continue their residency in Russia’s cultural capital for this second Group E game, after a 2-1 victory over 10-man Poland in their tournament opener last week.
Inter centre-back Milan Skriniar’s beautifully controlled 20-yard shot on the turn secured a famous win for the Falcons, as they pursue a repeat of their progress to the last 16 in France five years ago.
Following that successful debut as an independent nation, a squad which had experienced managerial upheaval and underwhelming form in recent times looked unlikely to emerge from a challenging section this time around.
In all, since the qualifiers ended over a year ago, Slovakia’s form has slumped. Under Pavel Hapal and then current coach Stefan Tarkovic, a transitional team had won only two of their previous 13 matches within 90 minutes; dropping four points against Cyprus and Malta at the start of the Qatar 2022 qualifying campaign in March.
Ahead of this potentially decisive game, however, Tarkovic will have fond memories of meeting the Swedes, with a 1-1 draw in Stockholm three years ago being his first game in charge of his nation – taking to the dugout as caretaker manager following Jan Kozak’s departure.
After predecessor Hapal left his post before the Euro 2020 playoff final, Tarkovic again stepped up – overseeing an extra-time win away to Northern Ireland to seal a place at this summer’s finals – and now leads some vastly experienced troops into a crucial clash.
Though younger players have now started to break through, five veterans of Slovakia’s 2010 World Cup campaign are still present some 11 years later, as Vladimir Weiss, Peter Pekarik, Juraj Kucka, Dusan Kuciak and inspirational captain Marek Hamsik are all fulfilling their national duty once again.
In fact, skipper Hamsik joined Sweden’s IFK Goteborg on a short-term contract in March, in order to gain fitness, so will now go head-to-head with some familiar faces on Friday, in an encounter set to be rich in international nous and know-how.