15th October 2013 has turned out to be one of my most memorable days as it was my first visit to a football stadium to catch a world cup qualifying match between Sweden and Germany in Stockholm. While Germany had already qualified as the group leaders, Sweden may still need to navigate a tricky two legged knockout fixture if they intend to obtain the ticket to Brazil. As nothing was at stake in this game both managers opted to give a rest to some of their star players for this match.
Friends Arena is situated in the north-western part of Stockholm and is home to AIK football club. The stadium possesses an elegant royal look like most of the buildings in Stockholm. When I reached the Arena, the stadium was buzzing with excitement. You could see Swedish flags flying around everywhere. The Germans had also come in large numbers and were scattered around the entire stadium and not just the away end. At 20:00, the players came out for practice session and they were accompanied by huge cheers.
There were murmurs of disappointment all around the stadium when the Swedish people failed to catch a glimpse of their national hero, Ibrahimovic who has had a hand in nearly 75% of their goals in their qualifying campaign. The Swedish team was trained by playing 5 a side match between the first teams, while the Germans were undertaking light drills. The players went in the changing rooms at 20:30 and returned at 20:40 for the national anthems.
The atmosphere had been subdued after the first 30 seconds. A glimpse of Ibrahimovic on the big screen was enough to galvanize the crowd. The Swedish team had made a bright start via their high pressing and with the crowd behind them a goal looked all but inevitable as the Germans had no answer to the high pressing Swedes. And in the 6th minute the pressure paid off when Larsson managed to split the German defense wide open and Hysen scored the first goal. The stadium came to life and Swedish chants rung all across the stadium.
The game continued at fast pace with Germans having a lion’s share of possession but were not able to create many chances in the final third. Both the Swedish wingers, especially Kacaniklic, were looking extremely dangerous on the counter attack. And the second goal duly arrived just before half time when Kacaniklic managed to score for Sweden giving them a 2-0 lead against the Germans.
Apart from Ozil, the entire German team had a pedestrian first half. While Schuerrle and Max Kruse were poor with their crossing, Muller was either being caught in possession or was caught offside. Joachim Low’s decision to play Mertesacker in the last few qualifiers was atoned as Hummels was partly responsible for both the goals as he seemed out of sync with his team. Ozil pulled one back for the Germans with his clever movement, albeit with a slice of luck just before the half time.
Muller was replaced by Gotze at halftime and Low’s decision paid immediate dividends. Ozil drew three defenders towards him in the box before squaring the ball to Gotze whose exquisite first time shot helped Germany equalize. Sweden then made matters worse for themselves as they lost the ball twice near their own box in quick succession, which led to the two Schuerrle goals.
The atmosphere in the stadium was subdued but not for long. Germany soon conceded a silly free kick and Hysen pulled one goal back. The stadium was rocking once again. The Swedes believed that they the 4-4 score line in the reverse leg was possible once again. Around the 70th minute mark, the ball was back in the German net, but the wild scenes of celebration were cut short by the linesman raising his offside flag.
Sweden had a couple of kicks around the box but they failed to test Neuer with their efforts. Schuerrle, who had come into his own in the second half, then fired a fine curling effort into the corner of the net to put the game to bed. Thus ended one of the most fantastic experience of my life as I went back home reminiscing about the 8 amazing goals that were scored in this fast paced match.
In spite of losing 5-3, Sweden can be happy that they managed 3 goals without Ibrahimovic, against a very good German defense. With Ibrahimovic coming in, any team that draws Sweden for the playoff will have a huge task on their hands. On the other hand, Boateng and Mertesacker have to be the central defense pairing for the Germans at the World Cup if they want to improve on their previous World Cup performance.