World Cup 2018: Sweden's incredible and unlikely Journey to the Last 16
What a World Cup it has been for Sweden. Out of nowhere, the Scandinavians have qualified for the knockout stages of the biggest tournament on earth. Furthermore, they finished first in their group which featured the holders Germany, Mexico and South Korea.
It has been an incredible ride to the latter stages of this World Cup and a story which has gone under the radar of many. However, to get the full picture, we must go back to their qualification which started way back in September 2016.
Way back when the draw for the qualifying groups were made, Sweden were drawn out in UEFA Group A, the same group as massive footballing nations France and The Netherlands. Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Belarus were largely the whipping boys of the group, leaving it a straight fight for the three remaining teams to see which would pull through.
Now on paper, considering the strength of the squads as well as recent history, it would seem impossible for one of France or the Netherlands to finish outside of the top two in this group. Such strength through history and with recent long winning streaks in big tournaments for both nations, the idea that Sweden may sneak through seemed crazy.
Despite losing three games, Sweden did the unthinkable and were able to finish in second place. After ten games, Sweden had the same amount of points as The Netherlands, but progressed through thanks to goal difference, with a lot of praise going to striker Marcus Berg for his eight goals in ten games.
Coming second in the group was a great achievement for Sweden in itself, but this was not enough to secure a place in the World Cup. Sweden merely qualified for the play-off round of qualification where they would face the giants of Italy over two legs, with the winner qualifying and the loser crashing out.
Italy arrived entered the fixture as enormous favourites. The Azzurri had not failed to qualify for a World Cup for over 60 years and again on paper, they looked much stronger than Sweden. There is no doubting that over the two fixtures Italy were the side with greater quality and skill at their disposal, this, however, does not always guarantee a positive result.
On home turf, Sweden managed to win the first leg by a slim 1-0 margin thanks to a deflected strike from Jacob Johansson and absolutely deserved the victory. The aggressive play style and physical nature of the Scandinavians was too much for Italy, who performed extremely poorly under the pressure.
That meant Sweden had a great chance of causing another huge upset and knock out the 2006 World Cup winners on their way to the finals. Incredibly Sweden overturned the odds again, holding Italy to a 0-0 draw, despite having to survive over 20 shots on goal throughout the game. The defence held strong and Sweden celebrated as giant killers, having pushed out The Netherlands and Italy on the road to Russia 2018.
Fast forward to the lead up to the World Cup and Sweden were drawn in Group F for the World Cup finals and once again, faced an extremely tough test. The blue and yellows were drawn out against dangerous South Korea, lightning-quick Mexico and strong favourites and previous holders of the World Cup - Germany.
In spite of all the great results they achieved to qualify for World Cup, Sweden were drawn in one of toughest groups in the tournament. After an incredible journey to make it to Russia 2018, their stay in the competition did not look like it would be a long one.
Everyone pretty much dismissed the Swedes, Mexico had made it out of the group every time in the last six World Cups and Germany had not failed to get to the knock out stages in 80 years! Yet, somehow once again, Sweden were there to upset the odds.
Sweden beat South Korea by one goal to nil, starting their World Cup in the best possible fashion. However, their chances looked bleak after a miraculous last-minute free-kick from Toni Kroos meant Germany defeated Sweden 2-1.
This left the group on a knife edge leading up to the final games, with Sweden and Germany tied on 3 points. Sweden's path to the last 16 was blocked by Mexico, a side which had won their first two games in an impressive manner and still had something to play for in the match, needing at least a point to ensure qualification.
Like they had done with every test they have faced beforehand, the Swedish team caused an upset, thrashing the Mexicans by three goals, meaning that Sweden qualified at the top of the group on goal difference ahead of Mexico, and amazingly send Germany home from the competition.
Arguably the favourites for the tournament crashed out in a shock no one saw coming. Sweden's win had meant that Germany needed to beat South Korea in order to advance, but the Germans could not break down the Koreans defence and lost the game which throwing everything forward in the dying moments.
Sweden had, therefore, completed a trilogy of upsets. The Netherlands, Italy and Germany all were unable to progress in their respective round thanks to the work of Janne Andersson and his players. For a relatively minor footballing nation to have blown away these titans of the sport, shows an incredible amount of team spirit and belief in the Swedish camp.
The seemingly unstoppable underdogs will progress on and will play Switzerland in the first round of the knockout stage. Considering the teams Sweden have already got past, they will be hoping to progress through to the Quarterfinals which will be the first time they have got to this stage since 1994.
Sweden did not qualify for the World Cups in South Africa nor Brazil and considering they were without figurehead Zlatan Ibrahimović, it looked like it would be three in a row. On the contrary, Sweden achieved shock result after shock result and knocked out some of the best teams in Europe in an outstanding run to the last 16 of the World Cup.
They will see if they can progress any further when they take on the Swiss in St Petersburg on Sunday and I for one cannot wait to see if Sweden can continue their remarkable journey.