NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - He did not play in the qualifiers nor come out of retirement for the World Cup, yet Sweden are still looking to step out of the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic when they face South Korea at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Monday.
The Asians, however, will be relying on their sole world class talent, Son Heung-min, to inspire them on the pitch as both teams try to shake off poor form in their opening Group F game.
The plus-sized personality of Ibrahimovic, who scored 62 goals in 116 appearances for the Scandinavian nation, still dominates conversation around the team even though coach Janne Andersson has been keen to move the narrative on.
“This is incredible! This player has stopped to play with Sweden one year and a half ago and we are still here talking about him,” Andersson said after Sweden upset Italy in November’s playoffs to return to the World Cup field for the first time since 2006.
“Gosh, we need to talk about the great players we have in this team I believe.”
But the likes of Emil Forsberg, John Guidetti and Ola Toivonen have lacked not only the bluster but also the form to move maverick Ibrahimovic from the spotlight, even though Sweden are now seen as a much more cohesive unit.
It did not help, either, that Sweden failed to score in their last three warm-up internationals.
Their patchy form is matched by opponents, South Korea, also far-from-inspiring in the build-up to the tournament.
Back for their ninth successive finals, South Korea will be looking to forward Son to take the leading role after scoring 18 goals in all competitions for Tottenham Hotspur last season.
“I feel great when people say good things about me but what’s important is that I have to show it on the pitch. I know lots of people’s expectations are on me, so I also feel a responsibility,” he told reporters this week.
South Korea will be keen to avoid any repetition of the fury that greeted their return home from the last finals in Brazil.
Just a single point from their three group matches led to the squad being pelted with toffees – a play on the expression “go eat toffee” which is an insult in Korea.
Editing by Christian Radnedge