Just last week I appeared as a guest on World Football Daily to speak about Sweden’s squad and in turn their hopes for this summer’s European Championships in Ukraine and Poland, during this interview a comparison was made between the character of the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s personality and the split personality of Jekyll and Hyde with Ibrahimovic either being on form during a match or a complete nuisance providing no positive help to the team. I feel the same comparison can be made with the whole Swedish team based on tonight’s performance in a 2-1 defeat to co-hosts Ukraine with the side intermittently slipping from the quick in tempo attacking system introduced by Erik Hamren to the long forgotten or at least so everybody thought conservative methods of Lars Lagerback seen over the past decade.
Ukraine on paper the weaker side were no doubt boosted by a wave of national pride and support inside the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv, at times it appeared as though Sweden were playing against a wind of the gale force variety such was the fervour of the partisan home support. Hamren as expected stuck with his as yet successful 4-2-3-1 formation with Kim Kallstrom and the much talked about Rasmus Elm as the two anchoring midfielders, this then left Ola Toivonen and Seb Larsson as two parts of a three pronged attacking midfield with Zlatan Ibrahimovic completing the trio. Markus Rosenberg returned to the international set up for this tournament due to the injury of John Guidetti having not taken any part in the qualification campaign yet found himself starting as the lone striker in Sweden’s opening fixture. Rosenberg having not scored for the Swedish national team in five years was thrown in at the deep end and as the first half wore on became isolated and ineffectual within the game. Oleh Blokhin picked as predicted a side that would play in a 4-3-3 formation with Andriy Shevchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka as the forward three. Andriy Voronin would also interchange with Konoplyanka throughout the match in this forward role. The pace of Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka would be used to support the ageing legs of Shevchenko whose job was to simply get into the position to score a goal which he would on numerous occasions throughout the evening. As expected Ukraine fielded a makeshift defence with Oleh Gusev playing at right back with the job of not only shackling the adventurous Martin Olsson but also to support the shaky central partnership of Taras Mykhalyk and Evhen Khacheridi.
Both sides began the match essentially feeling each other out with both evidently affected by the occasion, Sweden failing to look composed on the ball reverted to type playing longer passes over the top into Rosenberg and Ibrahimovic with the remnants of Lars Lagerback’s decade in charge creeping back into the Swedish mindset, the Ukrainians however were much more comfortable on the ball with their technical superiority coming to the fore with Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko giving the Swedish defence something to think about early on. Kim Kallstrom illustrated Sweden’s frustration at not being able to dictate the tempo of a match in a way they did so often in qualifying with a petulant sliding tackle which earned him a yellow card with just twelve minutes gone, however the Jekyll and Hyde personality switch occurred almost instantaneously with Sweden then passing the ball smoothly orchestrating an attack which led to Ibrahimovic being in possession of the ball in the Ukraine penalty area, Ibrahimovic showed his superior technical ability shielding the ball from the experienced Gusev before curling in a cross-come-shot that tested Pyatov for the first time in the Ukrainian goal with Seb Larsson unable to control the rebound however the first sign of danger from the Swedes had been registered. After twenty minutes both teams looked to have settled and were beginning to open up which led to the first clear cut chance of the game for Ukraine, a defensive lapse between Granqvist and Olsson allowed Andriy Shevchenko to break into the box with only Isaksson to beat however the former Milan hit man dragged his shot wide to the despair of the Ukrainian support in Kyiv whom would have to wait a little longer to celebrate a goal from their national hero. Hamren’s Sweden looked uncollected when Ukraine had the ball in particular on the right hand side with Andriy Yarmolenko turning Martin Olsson inside out on several occasions, after a fantastic season with Blackburn it was expected Olsson would carry a great additional attacking threat for Sweden yet there was a certain unwillingness for the left back to get forward which if his defending was anything to go by was down to nervousness. Ukraine then had yet another opportunity in the thirty eighth minute when their applied pressure found an opening for Shevchenko whose shot rebounded to Yarmolenko who attempted a volley into the bottom corner only to see his effort blocked by the outstretched leg of Olof Mellberg. The final action of the first half came yet again from the dominant in possession Ukraine when a fantastic individual run from Oleh Gusev allowed the Dynamo Kyiv man time to cross the ball which found Konoplyanka in the box who mistimed his effort firing it harmlessly over the crossbar.
Ukraine began the second half in the same way in which they ended the first, dominating possession however it was to be Erik Hamren’s Sweden who would take the lead in the fifty second minute through their captain Ibrahimovic. A superb Seb Larsson cross found Kim Kallstrom unmarked at the back post who slid in a perfect past to Ibrahimovic who with one touch put the ball into the net with exquisite technique. This goal did little more than rouse the Ukrainian supporters more and the co-hosts were level just three minutes after going behind. More intelligent wing play from Yarmolenko and arguably slow defending from Olsson allowed the Kyiv winger to whip in a left footed cross of pinpoint accuracy which found the run of Shevchenko who duly nodded the ball past Isaksson in the Swedish goal. The Olympic Stadium erupted with joy, they had been given their moment, their national hero second only to Valeriy Lobanovskyi had given them their national goal in their national stadium however Ukraine were not finished there with them going into the lead just after the hour mark. A Konoplyanka corner found Shevchenko who had escaped the far from tight marking of Zlatan Ibrahimovic before heading home from an almost impossible angle to score his second of the evening. Not only Zlatan is to be blamed for this second goal but also Mikael Lustig who was not tight enough on the post and would have stopped the ball on the line had he been in his rightful position, something with Erik Hamren will no doubt be drilling into his team before the Friday fixture with England. Ibrahimovic now cut an isolated figure with Sweden struggling to keep hold of the ball and coming second to Ukraine in the physical battle, Erik Hamren attempted to freshen his side with the introduction of Anders Svensson who would move into the anchoring role allowing Rasmus Elm to move forward into his preferred attacking midfield position where he had been so successful for both AZ Alkmaar and Sweden so far this year. The introduction of Christian Wilhelmsson and then the less than one hundred percent fit Johan Elmander illustrated the importance of which Erik Hamren had placed on not losing this opening fixture, the introduction of Wilhelmsson injected a hint of pace into the so far stagnant Swedish attack however they still looked flat and unlikely to score. Stereotypically Zlatan Ibrahimovic emerged from his in game slumber emphatically in the seventy sixth minute of play unleashing a fierce volley out of nothing which forced a rather fortuitous save from Andriy Pyatov whom dare I say knew very little about the aforementioned save. Martin Olsson then finally appeared to have escaped from his shell making his first offensive run causing the Ukrainian defence problems however it was only around eighty minutes too late. As the match entered injury time Sweden created what was to be their best chance, a tremendous scoop pass from Ibrahimovic found the so far ineffective and unfit Johan Elmander free inside the box who simply had to chip the ball over the oncoming Pyatov but instead opted for power and struck his shot far over the crossbar, it was an effort that epitomised Sweden’s evening with nothing they tried ever coming off and one would find it difficult to argue that Ukraine did not deserve their victory.
Flat and faltering is how I would describe this evenings Swedish performance, at a time when there was such optimism that Erik Hamren would finally get Sweden playing exciting attacking football they seemingly reverted to type with the conservative ways of Lagerback almost engrained into their subconscious mindset when it comes to tournament football. There were glimpses of the fluid football Sweden had displayed in qualifying however not nearly enough to trouble Ukraine who portrayed such technical prowess it is difficult to see how they will not give France and England very difficult games. It now appears rather unlikely that Sweden will progress out of the group stage, such was the importance of the result against Ukraine especially after England and France finished in a draw however on the positive side there is two games left in which if they play to the system Erik Hamren has introduced and avoid the conservative football that was on show tonight they may well surprise France and England especially with the good tournament record they hold against the latter however at the moment it is difficult to see how this Swedish adventure in Poland and Ukraine will continue past the 19th of June.