x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nordic nations ready for battle

Most of the 4,000 travelling Danish fans outside Stockholm's Central station in June were adamant their neighbours would not be going to the World Cup.

Most of the 4,000 travelling Danish fans outside Stockholm's Central station in June were adamant. "You're not going to the World Cup!" they sang ahead of their country's clash with their neighbours Sweden. With a four-point cushion at the top of Europe's Group One qualifying stage, the Danes' confidence was understandable. When a single Thomas Kahlenberg goal ensured another three points for Denmark, it led to parties around the country.

The Swedish fans leaving the Rasunda Stadium that night were mystified as their two world class forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, 38, spooned several chances over the Danish net, yet it was symptomatic of their form in the qualifiers. Larsson has failed to score in the four games he has played, while Barca's Ibrahimovic has managed two in seven games, even though one was the key injury time winner against Hungary away last month and his recent club form has been exceptional. Denmark and Sweden meet tonight in front of a sell-out 40,000 crowd in Copenhagen's Parken.

Six thousand Swedes will travel south and while Denmark still lead the group with two games to play, their cushion has been cut back to three points after two recent draws against Portugal and, disappointingly, Albania. Sweden, meanwhile, sit second having won their two most recent matches. If Sweden can break Denmark's unbeaten group record and win tonight, the pair will be level on 18 points, with Denmark's final game next week against Hungary and Sweden hosting a weak Albania side.

The anticipation for tonight's game is understandable, yet while the rivalry between the two Nordic neighbours is not a new, it has not simmered as intensely as now. In a Euro 2008 qualifier between the two countries in Copenhagen two years ago, Johan Elmander tore the Danes apart as Sweden raced into a 3-0 lead inside 26 minutes. But Denmark roared back and levelled the scores with 15 minutes left.

As the Danes pushed for a winner, Christian Poulsen inexplicably punched Markus Rosenberg in the stomach. Poulsen was sent off and Sweden awarded a last minute penalty, prompting a 30-year-old fan to run on the pitch and attack a German official. With the match abandoned, Denmark were fined ?50,000 (Dh270,371) and forced to play their next two games away from Copenhagen. Sweden were awarded the game 3-0 and qualified for Euro 2008, while the pitch invader became public enemy No 1 in his homeland.

Veteran Danish striker Jon Dahl Tomasson experienced the pain of that night. The 33-year-old Feyenoord striker, with 102 caps (still someway short of Peter Schmeichel's 129 Denmark caps), needs only one goal to draw level with Poul Nielsen's 52. "Denmark v Sweden is the biggest game in Scandinavia and we'll be going all out for the win because, if we get all three points, I think we can start looking a book a nice hotel in South Africa," said Tomasson.

"I was frustrated that we didn't win the last two games after beating Sweden, but, looking back, we have to see that draw against Portugal as a good result. They're a great side and they needed the win a lot more than we did. It was different against Albania; that really wasn't good enough and we got what we deserved." Tomasson was right to mention Portugal, who sit five points behind Denmark and just two behind Sweden. With untaxing home games against Hungary and winless Malta, the Portuguese seem finally rejuvenated after their draw in Denmark and a 1-0 win in Hungary last month.

Portugal will hope to end up with 19 points and a good boost to their goal difference, meaning that Sweden must avoid defeat in Copenhagen if they are going to finish second in the group and settle for a play off game as a route to South Africa. Portuguese newspapers are suggesting possible Scandinavian collusion as a draw would suit both, but they are not reckoning on the vengeful Danes. @Email:amitten@thenational.ae

Denmark v Sweden, 10pm, Aljazeera Sport +4