Sweden are approaching their opening group fixture of Euro 2012 in good spirits after emerging victorious in their final pre tournament warm up match against Serbia in which goals from the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ola Toivonen saw the Swedes on their way to a confidence boosting victory. The same cannot be said however for their Group D opponents and tournament co hosts Ukraine, Oleh Blokhin saw his side falter against Turkey in their final warm up match however of a more pressing concern to him is the fact up to ten of his players have been struck down by a mystery virus with vice captain Anatoliy Tymoschuk reported to have been admitted to hospital on a drip. There are shades of “lasagne gate” which struck down the majority of Martin Jol’s Spurs side just the night before their final Premier League fixture where they needed a win to secure Champions League qualification however the cause of this mysterious Ukrainian virus is not yet known but the fact that it has decimated the squad just five days before the opening fixture against Sweden is very worrying indeed from a Ukrainian point of view.
Sweden appear to be more than ready for the June 11th opener against Ukraine with them having a near enough injury free squad apart from the ongoing minimal concerns regarding Johan Elmander’s metatarsal injury, there is a sense of calm for Sweden under Erik Hamren and this manifested itself in last night’s performance against Serbia where a fluid free flowing attacking performance saw Sweden run out 2-1 victors. This newfound sense of serenity is one that may yet still need to find its way to Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the forward last night publically bemoaning Sweden’s inability to defend set pieces whilst some may feel this is part of his role as captain others may see it to be the first signs of his disruptive influence in what has been an otherwise peaceful reunion since Zlatan’s return to the national fold. Erik Hamren will be fully aware of the importance set pieces play heading into the clash with a Ukrainian side that boasts numerous physically domineering players who could be an aerial threat come June 11th. After the disappointing news regarding John Guidetti’s fitness which ruled him out of the final 23 man squad for Euro 2012 much of Sweden’s goal scoring hope has been placed on the shoulders of Zlatan however there is one man that mustn’t be forgotten and this is no other than PSV Eindhoven’s Ola Toivonen. Toivonen having boasted a record of 24 goals this season for PSV is heading into this tournament with a considerable amount of confidence, with Toivonen expected to occupy the role of a central attacking midfielder just behind Zlatan in Hamren’s 4-2-3-1 system there will be chances created for him. With a player as physically domineering as Zlatan who can not only hold the ball up but also pick out a well timed run with a pass then Toivonen could well be a potential dark horse for the golden boot of Euro 2012, the link up play between Toivonen and Zlatan is evident and has been ever since Erik Hamren took charge of the squad in 2010, his attacking system allowing Toivonen a certain amount of freedom in the attacking midfield role which has seen his form for both club and country improve tremendously. Not only Ukraine but Group D’s other participants France and England were given an idea of what to expect from Ibrahimovic and Toivonen in last week’s friendly against Iceland with Ibrahimovic using sublime skill and quick feet to beat a defender before putting in a low cross which found Toivonen unmarked at the back post who then coolly applied the finish. Whilst Toivonen may not find this sort of space in the penalty area against better teams it was a mere indication of how both he and Zlatan could link up together this summer in Ukraine and Poland. Toivonen’s good goal scoring form heading into the tournament will also please Hamren with the PSV man having scored in consecutive games. Ukraine would be wise to not underestimate Sweden as simply being a one man team and must avoid concentrating solely on stifling the magnificence of Zlatan as the firepower of Toivonen with the support of Bajrami and Seb Larsson in the attacking midfield trio could well prove to be the decisive factor. The inclusion of Rasmus Elm in the Swedish starting eleven against Serbia has given a slight indication that Erik Hamren may well prefer Elm to Bajrami as part of the attacking trio heading into the tournament, if this is to be the case then Ukraine will have to deal with not only a player who can distribute the ball both quickly and accurately but also a player who is renowned for his dribbling technique. After a very impressive year at AZ Alkmaar in the Netherland’s Elm has been attracting interest from Premier League giants Manchester United and will be determined to impress potential suitors of the European heavyweight variety with a string of impressive performances at this summer’s Championships. Finally onto the point of injuries with Sweden not picking up any injuries of note in the two warm up matches against Iceland and Serbia, Erik Hamren has a full squad at his disposal to choose from ahead of the Ukraine fixture however I am almost certain that he has the majority if not all of his preferred starting eleven transfixed in his mind with the only talking point being whether or not to start with Rasmus Elm or Emir Bajrami as the final player in the attacking midfield trio.
Ukraine unfortunately have not been able to prepare for their tournament opener against Sweden in a way they would have liked, after losing their final two pre tournament warm up matches against Austria and Turkey respectively a mystery illness has decimated the Ukrainian squad as previously mentioned. This illness is an event straight out of coach Oleh Blokhin’s nightmare with him now having to prepare multiple starting eleven’s before June 11th in case several of his players are not fit for the match. Whilst the severity of illness may differ from team member to team member the rumour that it is a form of food poisoning is very worrying with this often causing an individual to feel weak and lose a lot of weight. If food poisoning has spread around the Ukrainian camp there is a high probability that several players may not be fit enough to play in any of the group matches, key men such as Tymoschuk will be a big miss for the Ukraine as he not only provides international experience but a fantastic range of passing which could create chances for the veteran forward Andriy Shevchenko and his forward partner Artem Milevskiy. Whilst it has not been ideal preparation for Ukraine the enormity of the effect being a host nation can have on a team cannot be ignored, they will be playing their matches in Group D on home soil with the majority of supporters in the stadium going to be supporting them, this will give the players a boost and could prove vital in the game against Sweden where realistically Ukraine have to gain a positive result if they are to stand a good chance of progressing to the knockout stages on their own soil, however it could be argued that being the host nation could increase the pressure on a team as we saw in Euro 2008 with Austria who did not escape the group stages on home soil scoring just a solitary goal in the process. Ukraine will be relying heavily on the creativity of Dynamo Kyiv attacking trio Andriy Shevchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko and Artem Milevskiy as they hope to progress to the knockout stages, with Shevchenko seeing the curtain fall on his international career after the tournament he will be as determined as ever to make an impact and as with Henrik Larsson in Euro 2008 this may prove to be a massive source of inspiration for the Ukrainian side as they head into the fixture against Sweden in five days time.
Sweden Vs Ukraine
Sweden will head into their opening group game comfortable with Erik Hamren’s revolutionary 4-2-3-1 system which has allowed Sweden to completely distance themselves from the conservative stereotypically Swedish conservative approach to tournament football instilled by previous coach Lars Lagerback, this system giving individual players more freedom in how they play and in turn has improved results dramatically under Hamren. Oleh Blokhin is an advocate of the 4-4-2 formation which has plagued Swedish football for the last decade however fortunately for Ukraine Blokhin does allow a certain amount of fluidity within the system allowing his wingers to push forward which on occasions can cause the system to change to a 4-2-3-1 similar to Erik Hamren’s Swedish system. The 4-2-3-1 is very effective when used against a 4-4-2 as it essentially drowns the oppositions midfield, provided Ukraine start the match in a 4-4-2 system it will be incredibly difficult for the four in midfield to conjure up any attacks as they will first have to break down the attacking trio of Larsson, Toivonen and Bajrami/Elm whom whilst are attack minded players will still be able to disrupt the Ukrainian midfields rhythm and time in possession of the ball. Sweden will also look to take advantage of the makeshift central defensive partnership Ukraine will be forced to put together, with their preferred centre half former Barcelona man Dmytro Chigrinskiy being ruled out due to injury Blokhin will be forced to play Taras Mykhalyk and Yaroslav Rakitskiy together as a central defensive pairing. This is a risk as the two players have not played together often enough to forge a partnership needed in tournament football and Hamren will be hoping that the at times almost telepathic link up play between Ola Toivonen and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be able to cause the unorganised and makeshift Ukrainian defence numerous problems. One of the key battles of Sweden Vs Ukraine is going to be between Martin Olsson of Blackburn Rovers and Oleg Gusev of Dynamo Kyiv with both players having pace in abundance it will be interesting to see who will cause the other the bigger problem and it could come down to the system both coaches choose, if Blokhin starts the match in a 4-4-2 formation then it may well prove to be the case that Gusev takes up a more defensive, conservative role which will only invite pressure from the Swedes. This would be an incredibly dangerous tactic as the pace of Martin Olsson alongside the nimble feet of Elm or Larsson down the left hand side may overpower Gusev who would have to depend on the support of Yarmolenko who is not traditionally known for his defensive attributes. If Blokhin allows his 4-4-2 to be too negative Ukraine could well find themselves overrun on the left hand side and this constant pressure would no doubt create chances for Zlatan and Toivonen. Under Hamren Sweden have been incredibly difficult to break down having conceded just eleven goals in their ten qualifying games in a group that included the free scoring Netherlands and Ukraine will have to find a way to break down the solid defensive pairing of Jonas Olsson and Olof Mellberg if they are to get the result they desire in their opening fixture. A key to this will be how influential Tymoschuk is in the heart of the Ukrainian midfield, a man of huge experience has seen it all on both the international and club stage and is often the man that makes the Ukrainian side tick, his quiet unassuming style of play in which he simply wins the ball back and then passes it to one of the more technically gifted members of the squad is crucial to Ukraine. If he recovers from his mystery stomach virus in time for the Sweden fixture then the anchoring midfield pairing of Kim Kallstrom and Anders Svensson will have to limit his time on the ball to a minimum if they are to keep the Swedish solidity that has become synonymous with Sweden under Erik Hamren.
There is no doubt that the result of this game hinges heavily on the system’s chosen by the two coaches, Sweden will no doubt continue with their successful 4-2-3-1 but the decision that Oleh Blokhin has to make is crucial, if he chooses his trademark conservative 4-4-2 there is a great risk that they will become overrun by the energy of the Swedes as i have previously mentioned, if Blokhin decides to choose the 4-2-3-1 of his own however then we may well be set for one of the more intriguing strategic battles of the tournament with both sides potentially cancelling each other out as a result of playing the same system with the game possibly being decided by a moment of magic and one would have to say that Sweden have the higher number of individuals that could produce this moment of magic mainly in the shape of Zlatan. Ukraine buoyed by their home support will be motivated beyond belief for this fixture however whether they will be able to transform this motivation into a positive performance we will see. I think this game could potentially be also very exciting despite it being an opening fixture for both teams which are traditionally timid affairs both sides are aware that they need to pick up a positive result against the other as they then have two very tough matches coming up against the French and the English. I do think that despite the potentially decisions yet to be made about the system i think Sweden will have too much quality for Ukraine and take the three points.