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World Cup 2018 team preview: Is Sweden better without Zlatan?

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and return as all 32 team previews and eight group previews roll in.

Outlook
Odds to win Group F: 14.3%
Odds to advance: 42.6%
Odds to win World Cup: 1%
Elo rank: 20
Yahoo Sports power rank: 20

Our writers say: After beating four-time world champ Italy over two legs to qualify for Russia, the Swedes justifiably fancy their chances of advancing – to the point where they didn’t even bother trying to lure all-time top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of international retirement. — Doug McIntyre

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Emil Forsberg will be Sweden’s attacking centerpiece at the 2018 World Cup now that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is retired. (Getty)
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Basics
World Cup appearance: 12th
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up (1958)
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Finished second in UEFA Group A, behind France, ahead of the Netherlands; beat Italy in the playoffs
Schedule: South Korea (Monday, June 18, 8 a.m., FS1), Germany (Saturday, June 23, 11 a.m., Fox), Mexico (Wednesday, June 27, 10 a.m., Fox/FS1)

Squad
Manager: Janne Andersson
Captain: Andreas Granqvist (D)
Top players: Emil Forsberg (M), Victor Lindelof (D)
Full 23-man (or preliminary) squad

Breakdown
Why they’ll win games: Because they’re better without Zlatan. No, seriously. And that’s not just a foolish assumption based on the fact that their first World Cup qualifying cycle without Ibra this century was their first successful one since 2006. By all accounts, the team dynamic has been healthier with him out of the picture. The commitment to resolute defending is more steadfast. There’s more on-field structure. Sweden took the toughest road to Russia of anybody, so even if its roster isn’t chock-full of talent, it shouldn’t be overlooked.

Why they’ll lose games: Because they don’t have Zlatan, and are therefore pretty punchless going forward. Forsberg aside, there just isn’t much inventiveness or technical ability throughout the team. And Forsberg’s production fell off a cliff this past season at RB Leipzig.

How they’ll play: In a relatively rigid 4-4-2, with two 31-year-old strikers – one 6-foot-4, the other 6-foot – as target men. They won’t play out of the back or put together intricate passing sequences in midfield. It’ll be simple, route-one stuff.

Projected lineup (4-4-2): Robin Olsen; Mikael Lustig, Victor Lindelof, Andreas Granqvist, Ludwig Augustinsson; Viktor Claesson, Sebastian Larsson, Albin Ekdal, Emil Forsberg; Ola Toivonen, Marcus Berg.

This is almost exactly the same team that guided Sweden through qualifying. Don’t expect too many deviations.

Rooting Guide
What makes them unique: Ibrahimovic took his adoring fans on a damn emotional journey with constant cryptic hints that he may or may not be going to Russia. As it turns out, he will be … but only as a “brand ambassador” for a credit card company, which is super boring.

Why to root for them: Um … Maybe you got tired of Zlatan’s act, and want to see the Swedes flourish without him?

Why to root against them: Without Zlatan, they’re a candidate for most boring team in the World Cup field.

If you’re going to watch one game … Watch the Mexico game, because that’s where Sweden’s knockout round hopes lie. And because Mexico is fun to watch.

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