ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Sweden is doing just fine at the World Cup without Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Even the man himself thinks so.
“Listen, whoever plays against Sweden will have a hard time. That’s for sure and I think everybody knows it,” Ibrahimovic said in a video posted by his current club, LA Galaxy.
If coach Janne Andersson’s team is to go any further in Russia, it will be at the expense of No. 6-ranked Switzerland, as two of Europe’s less decorated soccer nations meet Tuesday in St. Petersburg in the round of 16.
Both sides have been waiting a long time for a trip to the World Cup quarterfinals.
The last time Switzerland went that deep into the tournament was in 1954. Sweden hasn’t won a round-of-16 match since finishing third in the United States in 1994.
Switzerland has worked hard to get this far, putting in a gritty defensive performance to hold Brazil to a 1-1 draw in its opening match and coming from a goal down to beat Serbia 2-1 in a match overshadowed by politically charged goal celebrations from Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka that referenced their Kosovo Albanian roots.
A 2-2 draw against Costa Rica sealed Switzerland’s place in the knockout stage, but it also cost the team the heart of its defense. Captain Stephan Lichtsteiner and fellow defender Fabian Schär are suspended after both got yellow cards for the second time in the tournament against Costa Rica. Sweden is without Sebastian Larsson after he also was booked twice in group stage play.
Sweden started its campaign in Russia with a narrow victory over South Korea. Then it surrendered a 1-0 lead to lose to Germany thanks to Toni Kroos’ winner deep in stoppage time, which provided what proved to be a temporary stay of World Cup execution for the defending champions.
In its final group match, Sweden moved up a gear to beat Mexico 3-0 and finish atop its group.
Sweden has adapted well to life after Ibrahimović, who retired from international soccer after a disappointing 2016 European Championship that saw Sweden finish last in its group.
In his absence, Sweden notched a win over France in its World Cup qualification group and beat Italy in a two-leg playoff to reach Russia with. An emphasis on strong team play has replaced its prior reliance on the larger-than-life striker.
“I took over the world,” Ibrahimović said. “Now Sweden is taking over the world.”
Looking at previous encounters is not going to help a great deal in picking a winner in St. Petersburg. The teams have met 28 times, with Switzerland holding the narrowest of advantages — 11 wins compared to Sweden’s 10. There have been seven draws. But the teams have not played one another since a 1-1 friendly draw in March 2002.
Ibrahimović retired as Sweden’s all-time top scorer, with 62 goals in 116 games. He still knows his way to the net at the club level.
He was on target again Saturday, scoring twice as LA Galaxy was held to a 3-3 draw in MLS’ California Clasico against the San Jose Earthquakes.
But he is still keeping a close eye on his country’s performance in Russia.
“I said before the World Cup they’ll go far and they’ll probably win it,” Ibrahimović said. “So I’m very happy, proud to be Swedish.”
Regardless of the result against Sweden, the World Cup is already unforgettable for Switzerland forward Breel Embolo.
The 21-year-old flew home this week to be with his partner Naomi as she gave birth to their daughter, Naylia, and then jetted back to rejoin his team.
The Swiss football federation called his quick trip home “the most beautiful 24 hours of his life.”
SECOND LINE OF DEFENSE
With Lichtsteiner and Schaer suspended, Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic is expected to call up Michael Lang and Johan Djourou as replacements.
Starting in a World Cup knockout match would complete a big week for Lang, who has just announced his transfer from Swiss club FC Basel to Borussia Moenchengladbach in the German Bundesliga.