SAMARA, Russia (AP) — Having intentionally steered England into what’s widely considered the weaker half of the World Cup’s knockout bracket, coach Gareth Southgate is now casting the upcoming quarterfinal against Sweden as “bloody difficult.”
Southgate sent out a crew of reserves who lost 1-0 to Belgium in their group-stage finale, and after both teams survived scares in the round of 16, Belgium now faces Brazil while England meets a Sweden side that gets far less respect.
But Sweden got to this same point by playing smart and unselfish soccer.
“Sweden are a team I respect hugely,” Southgate said Wednesday. “You know we’ve not got a good record against them, I think we’ve always underestimated them. They’ve got good players and they’ve got a clear way of playing. It’s bloody difficult to play against. They are greater than the sum of their parts more often than not.”
The two teams meet Saturday at Samara Stadium for the right to advance to a semifinal against Russia or Croatia.
England and Sweden have met twice previously in World Cup play, a 2-2 draw in 2006 and a 1-1 draw in 2002. Overall, England has won just two of the last 15 meetings.
The last was an exhibition in 2012. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored four times to lead the Swedes to a 4-2 victory in Stockholm. Ibrahimovic is retired from international football now, and while Sweden has since forged a stout defensive identity, its post-Zlatan attack hasn’t inspired fear in opponents.
The English are coming off a tense but ultimately euphoric round-of-16 game against Colombia. After giving up an injury-time equalizer that forced a 1-1 draw, England triumphed 4-3 in a shootout.
It was a morale booster for the Three Lions, who had been knocked out of three World Cups on penalties since 1990. Harry Kane said the young English side grew up a lot in that match.
“It shows the togetherness, shows the character,” Kane said. “We spoke about it before, but these are the moments you really see it.”
England went 2-1-0 in the group stage to finish second to Belgium. The round was highlighted by Kane’s hat trick in a 6-1 thrashing of Panama. Kane leads the field in Russia with six goals.
Sweden finished atop its group in Russia to face Switzerland in the opening match of the knockout round. Emil Forsberg scored on a deflection in the 66th minute of a grinding 1-0 victory.
Coach Janne Andersson was asked afterward if Sweden has been underrated at the World Cup.
“I think you’ll have to ask everyone else that question. We know that we are a good team. We’ve earned our success we know how we’ve got this far,” he said. “What other teams and countries think about that, that’s not terribly interesting.”
BABY BOOM: Fabian Delph is back with England after leaving Russia for the birth of his third child. He and his wife Natalie welcomed their daughter on Wednesday.
Delph left the team following its 1-0 loss to Belgium in the group stage finale and missed the match against Colombia.
Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist and his wife are expecting a child any day now, but the center back says he won’t sit out the match against England.
MISSING MAN: Sweden defender Mikael Lustig won’t play Saturday because of yellow card accumulation. The right back collected his second yellow card of the tournament for a tug on Switzerland striker Josip Drmic in the first half of Tuesday’s match in St. Petersburg.
The team will have Sebastian Larsson back from a ban, however, and the holding midfielder should go straight back into the starting lineup.
NOD TO THE SKIPPER: Sweden’s fans hung around following the victory over Switzerland, chanting the coach’s name. Andersson came back out to the field for a curtain call to acknowledge them.
“Well, of course it’s sort of a surreal feeling to be standing in St. Petersburg on the pitch afterward and a number of people are calling out my name. That’s quite extraordinary and quite strange,” he said.
HISTORY: England won its only World Cup in 1966 and hasn’t made it to the semifinals since 1990 in Italy, when it was eliminated on penalties by West Germany en route to a fourth-place finish. Sweden last made it to the semifinals in 1994 but fell 1-0 to Brazil in Pasadena. The Swedes have never won a World Cup title.
AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup .