Following a dismal display against Ukraine and then a significantly improved performance against England in their second group game, the Swedes find their Euro 2012 adventure in Poland and Ukraine over before it has even had chance to get started. If anything it is this early tournament exit for Sweden that illustrates the importance of not being slow out of the starting blocks if you will, and getting a positive result in your opening fixture. A loss in the first game puts significant pressure on a team knowing that if they lose their next fixture then they will be more than likely be knocked out of the competition if results in other matches do not go their way. Erik Hamren summed up Sweden’s Euro 2012 campaign in an unorthodox, amusing but perfectly accurate manner this week “the operation went well but the patient is dead.” Whilst the Swedish hopes for Euro 2012 success have long since faded the signs that Sweden are moving forward in the right direction are clear especially after the display against England at the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv on Friday evening. With the fluid football and attacking mentality that was missing against Ukraine making an appearance against England, there is the general belief that Hamren’s methods have reached the squad and that they have been acknowledged and taken on board, the opening fixture against Ukraine having been put down to the subconscious “cowardly” way of approaching tournament football that became trademarked by Sweden during the decade long Lars Lagerback era has been forgotten with Hamren now hoping for a positive performance against France and then time to reassess and rebuild ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Sweden will be coming up against a French side who still have a considerable amount to play for with progression to the knockout stages not yet being secured following a draw with England on match day one and a 2-0 win against Ukraine that was achieved essentially at a canter and there is still a chance that a positive performance from Sweden could still upset the apple cart and have an effect on the final outcome of Group D.
Sweden will approach tomorrow’s fixture with France in the knowledge that they will be without Johan Elmander and Rasmus Elm whom Hamren does not want to risk after the two have suffered from a metatarsal problem and a virus respectively. This opens up a place in the attacking midfield trio and the role of lone striker is now vacated with Ola Toivonen expected to return to the side in either of those capacities. It is expected that Ola Toivonen will return to his preferred place in the attacking midfield trio however Erik Hamren may well make the decision to play Toivonen as the long striker which he has done in the past at PSV and give Emir Bajrami a starting role in the attacking midfield role as the FC Twente has yet to feature in the tournament despite being billed as one of the potential starters. Hamren may also choose to be swayed by the popular desire of Swedish fans where the general consensus has been that Christian Wilhelmsson should have started the match against England however with that now in the past it could well be that the Al-Hilal midfielder will get his first start of the tournament against France. With both England and Ukraine keeping more than half an eye on proceedings at the Olympic Stadium it will be interesting to see how Sweden will approach the match, with their nation pride having taken a knock particularly as a direct consequence of the defeat to Ukraine it is expected that Sweden will indeed fight till the bitter end to gain their first victory of the tournament at the expense of Laurent Blanc’s France side however it is interesting to look at the comments made by Sweden’s captain the talismanic whilst at times egotistical Zlatan Ibrahimovic this week “I don’t care who wins. I’m going on a holiday” This may well suggest that the Milan forward’s mind is already elsewhere ahead of the final fixture of his tournament, although he followed these comments up by pledging his future to the Swedish national team stating he had no desire to retire from International football again anytime soon amidst rumours that he had become frustrated at the performances of other members of Hamren’s squad. Sweden will no doubt be despondent following their premature mathematical exit from the tournament however they will be buoyed by their performance against England where against on paper significantly superior opponents Sweden gave a more than good account of themselves, the return of Anders Svensson to the anchoring role in the midfield alongside Kim Kallstrom took Sweden back to a line up with which they were more familiar and this undoubtedly increased the confidence amongst the side and improved the performance accordingly, Svensson’s superior defensive ability to Rasmus Elm saw a more balanced Swedish side with Elm allowed to have a more positive impact further up the pitch as he returned to his favoured position in the attacking midfield trio. As previously mentioned with Elm missing from the squad for the match against France it is expected Svensson will once again start as one of the anchoring midfield pairing and this will potentially allow Sweden to continue playing in the same manner in which they did against Roy Hodgson’s England with confidence in their passing ability. Another that was evident on Friday evening was the improvement in mindset of Blackburn Left back Martin Olsson who after his under par display against Ukraine made a significant step forward to returning to his domestic form which saw him claim a place in Erik Hamren’s squad, his defending was improved albeit against the less mobile James Milner in comparison to Andriy Yarmolenko however his willingness to pressure the attacker was much improved as was his confidence in going forward and supporting attacking moves although his only real attacking run of note came in injury time against England. This bodes well for Sweden going into the fixture with France especially with Mathieu Debuchy not having being truly tested as yet in the tournament. The return of Jonas Olsson also improved Sweden’s level of performance with the West Brom man slotting into the central defensive slot alongside Olof Mellberg with relative ease however Andreas Granqvist still appears to be the weak link of the Swedish defence with a lack of communication between him and Olof Mellberg being a contributing factor to Andy Carroll opening the scoring with a free header in Kyiv, it may well be the case that Erik Hamren chooses to drop Granqvist to the bench in favour of the more robust Mikael Lustig who despite missing most of the domestic season with Celtic through injury has shown a certain level of competent defending so far this summer, the injury picked up by Granqvist which saw him substituted for the final ten minutes of the match against England may well be deemed too severe to risk Granqvist in a game of little importance from a Swedish point of view.
Laurent Blanc’s France side know that a win against Sweden on Tuesday evening will definitely ensure their progression to the knockout stages and on paper this seems an inevitability with Sweden already knocked out of the tournament however with the French having as yet not set the tournament alight will be ever so cautious of avoiding a Swedish backlash. The French will be buoyed by the news that the much talked about Yann M’Vila made his return for the French side coming off the bench in the victory of the co hosts Ukraine and Laurent Blanc will no doubt be pondering whether to put the Rennes midfielder back into the starting line up with Alou Diarra having stepped in for the injured M’Vila and performed reasonably well. The form of Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema has been one of positives for the French so far with Nasri equalising against England and Benzema setting up Yohan Cabaye to score the second goal against Ukraine, the nimble footed style of play of both Nasri and Ribery will no doubt cause the less than mobile defensive partnership of Olof Mellberg and Jonas Olsson difficulties, another potential target area for Laurent Blanc to try and take advantage of is on the left side of the midfield, if Andreas Granqvist plays at right back again then it is imperative that Franck Ribery be positioned on the left side of the midfield and be given the ball as much as possible. His quick feet and skill combined with the pace and support of Gael Clichy from the position of left back will no doubt cause the mistake prone Granqvist problems with the Genoa defender hardly covering himself in glory with his defensive work against the pace of Ashley Cole and Ashley Young respectively. With the match against Sweden taking place at the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv it will be the first time France will have played away from the Donbass Arena in Donetsk so far this tournament and with the Swedes having played both their matches so far in Kyiv this may well prove to be a decisive factor with the French having to readjust to the pitch in Kyiv and the difference in temperature between Kyiv and Donetsk however if there has been one time who cannot be accused of failing to adapt to weather conditions it is the French following the hour long delay of their match against Ukraine due to a severe thunderstorm. Blanc is expected to keep Jeremy Menez in the starting line up following his goal scoring performance against Ukraine, after the disappointing display by Florent Malouda against England Blanc recognized that his team needed to be more ruthless in the attacking sense and he saw the PSG midfielder as the ideal man to do this and his decision was justified with Menez featuring in most of France’s attacking moves on Friday afternoon albeit a significant number of them wasteful but as the old saying goes it would be more worrying if the chances themselves were not being created. France will be looking to gain an early goal to settle the nerves at the Olympic Stadium knowing full well that a defeat against Sweden will leave them well and truly close to going the same way as Russia, the Netherlands and Sweden themselves in being knocked out of the tournament.
Sweden Vs France
Sweden are expected to once again set up in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Erik Hamren has introduced to the squad since his appointment in 2010 and interestingly it is the formation that has been commonly used amongst other teams so far this summer in Ukraine and Poland so it would not at all be surprising if we were to see an influx of club teams using this system in continental competitions next season. Laurent Blanc will once again make the decision regarding who will start for France at left back with Gael Clichy being chosen ahead of Manchester United’s Patrice Evra for the Ukraine fixture with Blanc seemingly going for a more attack minded style of play in the hope that France will be able to outscore teams with evidence so far suggesting their defence of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami being at times rather shaky. One way Sweden could target the French is through the use of attacking set pieces, after seeing how poorly the French defending for England’s opening goal on match day one the Swedes will be sure that the height and physical presence of individuals such as Olof Mellberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could cause the French considerable difficulties in an aerial battle. Mellberg having already scored two goals from set pieces so far this tournament could well prove to be a potential thorn in the side of the French. Sweden without Elmander will have a choice to make as to who will start as the lone striker with it expected to be Ola Toivonen following the disappointing performance from Markus Rosenberg in the defeat against Ukraine, the height of Ola Toivonen would cause problems for Mexes and Rami who struggled in the aerial battle against England, this physical play from Toivonen could open up a lot of chances for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his role as part of the attacking midfield trio. Zlatan could well profit by feeding off the physicality of Toivonen which could well prove to be one of the key areas that decides the outcome of the match. The pace the French possess on the left hand side in the form of Gael Clichy and Franck Ribery could well be a factor should Hamren select Andreas Granqvist at right back following his displays bereft of confidence against Ukraine and England and the significant technical ability of the French could create numerous chances on the left hand side. The pace of Menez on the right hand side could also take advantage of any potential mistakes made by Martin Olsson at left back. Laurent Blanc may well decide to keep the 4-5-1 that was successful against the Ukrainians however with Ribery and Menez moving forward alongside Karim Benzema making the formation essentially an attacking 4-3-3 which will be a measure that would signal the French intent to win the match and should Mellberg, Olsson and co stifle Benzema there is always the option of bringing Olivier Giroud on from the bench. With Hamren still to decide whether to play Bajrami or Wilhelmsson it is unsure as to what Gael Clichy will be up against on the right hand side of the Swedish midfield with the pace and quick feet of Bajrami potentially matching Clichy, or the industrious ball control of Wilhelmsson holding up the ball and creating chances for Zlatan and Toivonen.
With France still having so much to play for I can see them coming quickly out of the blocks with them going in search of the early goal, i feel however that should this early goal not come the French may well become frustrated and with the Swedes able to gain confidence from there and start passing the ball well and going forward in the way they illustrated both in qualifying and against England on Friday evening. Hamren will be hoping for a performance from his players that portrays pride and confidence that will make the record for the tournament on paper look slightly better however this tournament will no doubt be a learning curve for the Swedish with the real hard work starting in qualification for the World Cup in Brazil provided the Swedish FA do not make a rash decision and dismiss Erik Hamren from his post as a direct result of the poor record this summer however early signs suggest Hamren will be kept in place. I think the superior technical ability of the French will be evident tomorrow evening and I think they will have too much for the Swedes and will get the result they need to go through however the hope that Sweden may well just have one say in this Group is still well and truly there.