Sweden’s reliance on Ibrahimovic wanes as young stars emerge

Zlatan Ibrahimovic being unavailable for a big Sweden game would typically be a matter of national angst.

Not so much these days.

Sweden’s reliance on its all-time leading scorer — and possibly the country’s greatest ever player — has waned following the emergence of a crop of gifted attacking players who are about half his age.

Anthony Elanga, a 19-year-old wide forward, is enjoying a breakthrough season at senior level — at Manchester United, no less.

Dejan Kulusevski, 21, is proving to be a revelation at Tottenham following his move in the January transfer window.

Then there’s the 22-year-old Alexander Isak, the striker whose dynamic performances during last year’s European Championship made observers sit up and take notice.

Suddenly, Sweden going into the World Cup qualifying playoffs against the Czech Republic on Thursday without the enigmatic brilliance of the 40-year-old Ibrahimovic isn’t the daunting task it once would have been.

Ibrahimovic is suspended for the game in Stockholm and, if Sweden wins, might not be fit enough to start a match against Poland on Tuesday, when a place in the tournament on Qatar will be on the line. He is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury.

For Sweden coach Janne Andersson, though, Ibrahimovic still has a huge role over the next week.

“He can contribute his experience here,” Andersson said. “I see him as a half-leader who can push, guide and give tips to the younger players, so he has an important role even if he does not play on Thursday.

“I can say that I have the greatest confidence in him in that role.”

Not since Henrik Larsson was up front with Ibrahimovic in the early 2000s has Sweden been blessed with such strong attacking options. Having an icon like Ibrahimovic to mentor the country’s young forwards makes the situation even better.

Especially because the likes of Kulusevski, Elanga and Isak can relate to Ibrahimovic and his journey to playing for the Swedish team. Just as Ibrahimovic was born in Sweden to immigrant parents from the former Yugoslavia, Kulusevski was born in Sweden to parents with Macedonian heritage. Elanga was born in Malmo — like Ibrahimovic — and his father is a former Cameroon soccer international. Isak is the son of Eritrean parents who moved to Stockholm in the 1980s because of the long civil war in eastern Africa.

“Zlatan opened doors to us people in Sweden that nobody can imagine,” Kulusevski has said. “He really helped every young kid … kids who were outsiders, showing them that everything is possible. When he started mentioning my name as a player, I was like a kid at Christmas.

“I also admire,” Kulusevski added, “that he is 40 years old and can continue to do what he does, score goals. It’s an honor to play with him.”

Elanga is in Sweden’s senior squad for the first time after making his way into United’s team despite a list of illustrious attackers at the English club, headed by Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.

His fearlessness has really stood out this season and Andersson is delighted to have Elanga on board, given the teenager could have opted to play for Cameroon or even England, where he moved at the age of 11 with his mother and sisters.

Elanga isn’t likely to start against the Czechs, and Andersson does not feel under any pressure to play the youngster simply to “lock him in” to the Sweden team.

“I don’t reason like that — he has said that Sweden applies to him, 100%. I trust what he said to me,” Andersson said.

“If we’re talking about someone like Anthony, if we were to chase a game then we could bring him in (the team). If we defend and counter, then we can use him that way, too. Will he play from the start? He will not do that, if nothing unforeseen happens. But he can definitely jump in for us.”

Isak looks to be a lock at center forward. Playing just off him will be Emil Forsberg, a wide forward at Leipzig who has been the team’s standout attacker for a while, especially when Ibrahimovic was in international retirement from 2016-21.

Ibrahimovic could yet retire from national team duty again if Sweden loses to the Czechs. Or maybe after the World Cup, if Sweden gets there.

“I’ll continue as long as I can, as long as I can come up with results,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t want to have regrets when I quit. I want to maximize while I can. You have this fear of what will happen afterward.”

There’s unlikely to be too many tears shed when it does happen, though.

After all, Sweden’s attack looks to be in a very good place without him.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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