With just over two months to go before the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007, all eyes are turning to a Sweden team currently enjoying a red-hot run of form. Back-to-back 7-0 wins over Romania and Hungary during the qualifiers for the UEFA European Women's Championship 2009 have sent morale soaring ahead of September's showpiece event.
The mood was dampened somewhat by an injury to Hanna Ljungberg, a key figure in Thomas Dennerby's free-scoring side. Having limped out early against the Hungarians, the lethal goal-getter appears set for at least a month on the sidelines.
Nor is it the first time Ljungberg has been hit by the injury jinx in the build-up to a major tournament. Struck down with ligament damage prior to the Olympic Football Tournament at Athens 2004, the feisty front-runner recovered in record time to help her team to a respectable fourth-place finish.
Taking on an even greater share of the goalscoring responsibility in Ljungberg's absence will be 30-year-old Victoria Svensson, who added a brace in the Hungary match to her remarkable five-goal haul against Romania. "I'd love the World Cup to start right now, because we're playing really well," the Swede told FIFA.com. "I'm feeling fantastic and I hope that we can keep this purple patch going throughout September and our stay in China."
Passing the baton
Following the international retirements of Malin Mostrom, Linda Fagerstrom and Anna Sjostrom, the new-look Sweden team has found itself under severe scrutiny, with fans and media alike keen to see how Svensson and company perform without the experienced trio.
"Clearly all three are great players and we've certainly missed them. That said, I think we've played well this year," says Vickan. "The two wins over the past week prove that we're on top form, and we also performed well at the Algarve Cup."
In March's long-standing tournament in Portugal, Sweden beat their French counterparts 3-1 in the third-place play-off to take the bronze medal for the second year running. "We weren't at all disheartened after that competition, because we gave everything we had against the United States and created a lot of chances. We lost 3-2 but if the game had lasted for five more minutes, I'm convinced we would have won," she assures FIFA.com. "Of course we were aiming to win the competition, but our priority this time around was to experiment with new players and a new system. And I think we did really well."
The Djurgarden/Alvsjo sharpshooter feels that coach Dennerby and his staff have assembled an exciting blend of gifted youngsters and experienced campaigners, good enough to maintain Sweden's place in the upper echelons of the women's game. "Lotta Schelin, Nilla Fischer, Anna Paulsson, Caroline Seger... These are just a few of the youngsters who I'm sure will do a great job for us."
The voice of experience
A veteran of two FIFA Women's World Cups (fourth place at USA 1999 and runners-up at USA 2003) and two editions of the Olympic Women's Football Tournament (eliminated in the group stages at Sydney 2000 and fourth place at Athens 2004), Svensson is fully aware of her responsibilities to the newcomers in the squad.
"I always tell them that we have to work really hard every day, and that a World Cup game is not like any other - there's a great deal of media pressure and a lot of people watching your every move," she explains, voicing the lessons learned from her 136 caps. "Every game is important and you can't always play nice football; sometimes you have to dig deep, use your instinct and do everything in your power to win. We're all raring to go for China."
Despite the intense pressures that abound on the world's biggest stage, Victoria has been involved at the highest level for long enough to handle whatever awaits her and her team-mates on Chinese soil. "I'm feeling fine at the moment. I'm training well and I just try and do everything as well as I can," says Vickan, for whom a leading role holds no fears. "I'm more than capable of accepting the responsibility, on and off the pitch. No doubt about it."
Eyes on the prize
As fate would have it, the finals draw for China 2007 has paired Sweden alongside USA, Korea DPR and Nigeria in the group phase - the exact same teams they faced at the same stage of the 2003 tournament. Given the difficulty of the task ahead, Svensson is keen not to get carried away. "To start with we've been drawn in the same group as in 2003... it looks a bit daunting," she admits. "I think it's the toughest group but having come through it safely once before is encouraging. We'll take it one step at a time, see how the group pans out and then see what happens."
Having made it all the way to the final four years ago, Vickan is hoping to go one better this time around: "This could be our year. I certainly hope so. We played well in the final in the USA but Germany managed to beat us. We're aiming to reach the final again and for it to end differently, although we know how difficult it's going to be."
In fact, September's showpiece event could prove to be the deadly finisher's international swansong. After more than 15 years dedicated to her footballing career, Victoria plans to take a much-needed break following China 2007 and consider whether or not to hang up her goal-laden boots. Whatever she decides, a FIFA Women's World Cup winners' medal would make her holiday that much sweeter.