Sweden v Czech Republic: Forsberg to lead the way
The World Cup playoffs in Europe begin on Thursday, and Kevin Hatchard thinks a Bundesliga star can help Sweden to overcome the Czech Republic...
Sweden must maximise second chance
While some teams were never realistically going to qualify automatically for the World Cup finals (Czech Republic finished six points behind their group winners Belgium), Sweden carved out a great opportunity, only to blow it at the end of the qualifiers. Janne Andersson's side was in pole position after an impressive home win against Spain in September, but they lost their final two qualifiers against Georgia and Spain.
However, Sweden can at least take confidence from their home form. They won all four of their home qualifiers, conceding a single goal in the process. Including friendlies, they have won their last nine matches on home soil. They haven't suffered a defeat at home since September 2020.
The concern is where the goals are going to come from. Larger-than-life veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suspended, Robin Quaison is playing in a relatively low-quality league in Saudi Arabia, and the lavishly gifted Alexander Isak hasn't scored a single goal in 2022. Greuther Fürth forward Branimir Hrgota has been recalled after a decent spell in the German Bundesliga, but he's not generally a reliable goalscorer.
However, it's not all doom and gloom. Dejan Kulusevski has been outstanding since his move from Juventus to Tottenham, with two goals and four assists in the Premier League. Emil Forsberg got a goal and two assists in the recent 6-1 victory at Fürth, and he banged in four goals at EURO 2020.
Czechs back from the brink
Jaroslav Silhavy's Czech Republic only won four of their eight qualifiers, and they finished behind Belgium and Wales. Their place in these playoffs came courtesy of their performances of the UEFA Nations League, another example of why that competition needs to be taken seriously by its participants.
The Czechs are unbeaten in their last five matches, but we shouldn't be too distracted by that, because the three most recent matches were against Belarus, Kuwait and Estonia. Perhaps more instructive is the team's away form in the qualifiers - they lost 1-0 in Wales and 3-0 in Belgium, with the latter game pretty much over with 25 minutes remaining.
Any side would struggle without its star player, but the Czechs are particularly hampered by the loss to injury of outstanding striker Patrik Schick. The Bayer Leverkusen frontman has scored 20 goals in 20 Bundesliga matches, and he was one of the best players at EURO 2020, scoring the goal of the tournament against Scotland. However, he injured a calf muscle against Mainz in February, and hasn't played since.
Schick's absence isn't the only problem. West Ham right-back Vladimir Coufal has missed his club's last eight games with injury, while his club colleague Alex Kral has barely played a first-team game at the London Stadium, having failed to impress Hammers boss David Moyes. Defenders Ondrej Celustka and Ondrej Kudela are unavailable.
Sweden are fair favourites
The Czech Republic did well at EURO 2020, dumping the Netherlands out in the first knockout round, but the absence of Schick is a serious blow. Silhavy's side has a poor away record against talented opposition, and Sweden are very strong at home.
Even without Zlatan, Sweden should find a way to win inside 90 minutes, and home victories over Spain, France and Croatia in the last five years show that this is largely a group of players that can rise to the occasion. Even though many of the squad didn't play in all of those wins, that kind of achievement can build confidence in general.
At 2.1. I'll back the hosts in the Match Odds market. If you want to be a little more conservative, use the Sportsbook's Bet Builder to back Sweden/Draw Double Chance and Under 2.5 Goals at 1.75. With notable attacking players missing or out of form on both sides, this could be a tight game, so this bet gives you the 0-0, 1-0, 2-0 and 1-1 score-lines.
Emil to seal the deal?
Given that he is an excellent striker of a dead ball, and one of Sweden's most creative forces, Leipzig's Emil Forsberg is a player worth focusing on. He had an excellent European Championship, and is in decent form at club level.
Forsberg is an attractive 11/4 to score at any time, and 16/5 in the Anytime Assist market.
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