Sweden have not beaten Denmark in a competitive match since 1992, and the memory of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, when Denmark won 1-0 home and away (not helped by Kim Kallstrom missing a penalty in Stockholm) to reach South Africa, gives the visitors a mental edge. The Sweden coach at the time, Lars Lagerback, resigned the day after the second defeat.
Current boss Erik Hamren is in a similar situation. In 2014, the only teams Sweden beat were Liechtenstein and Estonia; and after the September results against Russia (0-1) and Austria (losing 4-1, their worst home result since the 1958 World Cup final), there were calls for Hamren to stand down with immediate effect, and bring in a new face for the play-offs.
Hamren has survived but his reluctance to pick players from Sweden’s victorious Euro U21 campaign has frustrated fans and pundits. Only in recent games have Oscar Lewicki and John Guidetti seen game-time, while other summer winners Isaac Kiese Thelin and Abdullah Khalili stayed on the bench. None of these young guns have a mental block against Denmark: they beat them 4-1 in the semi-final in the Czech Republic.
The countries’ differences are historical and ideological. Historical because they have been involved in many wars with each other, from the Viking era through to the Stockholm bloodbath in 1520, when Danish king Christian II beheaded Swedish bishops and drowned noblemen and common citizens. Relations did not improve when the Danes were forced to cede Norway to Sweden in 1814.
The difference in mentality is just as marked: the Danes think Swedes are boring and uptight. It is an attitude that reflects on the pitch, where Denmark play an attacking 4-2-3-1 while Sweden tend to stick to a 4-4-2.
The most un-Swedish player in their side, though, holds the key to their hopes. Zlatan Ibrahimovic last week won his 10th successive Golden Ball for Sweden’s best player and is in good form for PSG. The Danes have caused some mischief by pointing out that Ibrahimovic has never scored against Denmark. He has gone six games without a goal against their neighbours, his worst record against any opponent (bizarrely, he has also drawn four blanks against Latvia and Liverpool).
“I know that Zlatan has not scored against the Danes before, but now is the time,” said Hamren. “This is his time.” Ibrahimovic could face the same fate as Hamren. If Sweden fail to qualify, he is expected to retire from international football. He is now 34, coming towards the end of his contract at PSG and likely to move to MLS next year. He has said he wants to be part of Sweden’s Olympic team in Rio, but it’s likely he will stand aside to let the new generation of U21 champions take their place for qualification for Russia 2018.
“Zlatan said before the World Cup that a tournament without Zlatan would not be worth watching,” said young Danish midfielder Pierre- Emile Højbjerg, currently on loan at Schalke from Bayern Munich. “I think it would be a disaster for the Swedes, but not for us.”
Denmark has its own issues. Coach Morten Olsen is a history-maker, the only person to have played more than 100 times for the country and then coached them in over 100 games. He has been in charge of Denmark since 2000 and whatever happens, this is his last campaign. He was also haunted by September results, as 0-0 draws against Albania (at home) and Armenia (away) allowed Albania to sneak into the automatic qualifying spots.
“The Euros in France in 1984 were the first competition I was part of as a player, and it would be nice to end up in France 2016 to finish it all off,” said Olsen. His squad is stronger than Sweden’s, even if it lacks the individual brilliance of an Ibrahimovic. But a front four of Nicklas Bendtner (Wolfsburg), Christian Eriksen (Spurs), Martin Braithwaite (Toulouse) and Michael Krohn-Dehli (Sevilla) could cause some trouble for Sweden centre-backs Mikael Antonsson and Andreas Granqvist, especially if Kallstrom, aged 33 and never the quickest, is protecting them in midfield.
TV advertisers have wound up fans this week: Danish station Channel 5 showed a five-year-old girl cutting off the braids on her Pippi Longstocking doll (a Swedish icon) and her parents burning Ikea furniture. The strapline that followed: More than a game.
There is an acceptance that the reigns of Hamren and Olsen are in their end-game and the autumn results have only downplayed expectations in both camps. Neither team expects to do well in France next summer, but that won’t stop them going for it tonight.