Marcus Berg and Emil Forsberg grapple with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s shadow
Marcus Berg and Emil Forsberg laboured in the group stage and Sweden’s star men penned contrasting tales in the 1-0 win over Switzerland.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Russia 2018 and departed without a goal in the knockout rounds of the World Cup to either of their names.
It is a staggering fact that underlines how fleeting this window to impress as the world watches is, not to mention how swiftly and brutally it shuts.
World Cups build and demolish reputations, embellish and stain careers. This is football under the microscope as the narrative runs in fast forward.
Ronaldo and Messi’s achievements are obviously numerous enough that their early departure from the FIFA jamboree will not count too much against them when their medals and trophies come in for a final count.
Others are not so fortunate.
Sweden striker Marcus Berg came to this tournament in prolific form. In the Gulf League, the 31-year-old striker scored 25 times in 21 matches for Al Ain last season. Sniff at the standard if you must, but there were also seven in eight AFC Champions League outings.
His final campaign with Greek giants Panathinaikos yielded 24 in 30 top-flight games, not to mention eight in Sweden’s 11 contests on the road to Russia. This is a man who knows where the goal is.
What Berg wouldn’t give right now to have packed even a little of that Midas touch, despite helping Sweden to a 1-0 last-16 win over Switzerland.
His first chance arrived early on – a deft lay-off from Ola Toivonen leaving the whites of Yann Sommer’s eyes in the Swiss goal in view. Berg blazed wide.
Another opportunity was blocked as Janne Andersson’s men piled merrily into the box with their Scandi-ball. By the time Sommer produced a wonderful one-handed save to keep out his swivelled left-footed strike in the 28th minute, Berg had aimed 13 unsuccessful attempts at this World Cup. No player has tried more without scoring.
Blerim Dzemaili blazed over for Switzerland and Albin Ekdal produced the worst Swedish miss of the lot – none of which will come as any consolation to Berg, given this is the tournament in where he can finally emerge from a hulking shadow.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic operated up front with Berg during the later years of his international career, his star billing indisputable.
“Others have been allowed to take a step forward [after] we lost one of the world’s greatest football players,” said current Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist before this match, and repeated inferences that team spirit resides where an ego used to have not been subtle.
The advertising boards of Ibrahimovic’s latest commercial partner dominating the perimeter of the field almost seemed to be mocking a Sweden performance high on graft but low on craft until the player seen by many as his true heir stepped forward.
Like Berg, Russia 2018 had not been kind to Emil Forsberg. The delightfully impish RB Leipzig playmaker has resided on the periphery of matches, although this has had as much to do with Andersson’s rigid tactical setup.
“He has almost been playing like a left back,” one Swedish journalist bemoaned on the eve of the match.
Forsberg’s dazzling form for Leipzig - reportedly good enough to have piqued the interest of Arsenal, Juventus and Atletico Madrid among others - comes in a team heavily influenced by the gegenpressing style. However, Sweden play as if the tactical trends of the past 20 years never happened. Two compact banks of four, two up front, work the channels.
Aided by the funeral march tempo Switzerland pursued towards their World Cup elimination, spaces finally opened up for the 26-year-old to dart in from the left and weave some pretty patterns.
None more so than when he scampered in field to collect a 66th-minute lay-off from the hulking Toivonen. The slice of luck as his shot pinged off Manuel Akanji’s right boot and past a helpless Sommer was well-earned.
Off Forsberg tore into the late afternoon sunshine, away from Ibrahimovic’s shadow and into his country’s first World Cup quarter-final since 1994. He even found time to block Breel Embolo’s late header on the Sweden goal line.
Maybe this weekend he can drag the embattled Berg with him into the light.