With their elimination from the tournament already decided Sweden headed into their final fixture in Group D knowing that they only had their national pride to play for and Erik Hamren was determined that his side produce their best performance in order to give the significant in number vocal travelling support something to enjoy before they returned to Sweden early following their adventure into Poland and Ukraine. Sweden without the attacking duo of Johan Elmander and Rasmus Elm due to injury and illness respectively would have to make minor changes to the side that gave Roy Hodgson’s England such a scare on last Friday evening with many, and myself included believing that the Swedes did in fact deserve to gain at least a point out of that match with Emir Bajrami and Ola Toivonen being called into the starting eleven to face France. Following their elimination from the tournament Erik Hamren approached the match against France at the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv with a certain degree of pragmatism in the sense that he knew that on paper there was nothing for Sweden to play for yet he still was confident and hoped his side would put in the sort of display that would see his team avoid finishing the tournament on zero points alongside the Dutch, Hamren despite wanting to win the game was not in the mindset to take risks which we can see from the withdrawal of Elmander and Elm from the team due to not being one hundred percent fit. The 4-2-3-1 system favoured by Hamren was in use once again against the French with Anders Svensson keeping his place in the anchoring midfield role in what many expected to be the former Southampton man’s final match of his international career, FC Twente’s Emir Bajrami was given his first appearance of the tournament so far as expected replacing Rasmus Elm as one third of the attacking midfield trio that play just behind the lone striker and with the decision to leave Elmander out of the starting line up Ola Toivonen was placed in the lone striker role ahead of the more experienced Markus Rosenberg who hardly covered himself in glory with his performance in the tournament opener against co hosts Ukraine. Following the much improved performance against England there was the sense among Swedish media and the squad alike that they were finally becoming comfortable with Hamren’s system in the tournament football arena with the last remnants of the Lars Lagerback conservative 4-4-2 system seemingly gone from the Swedish mindset. This improvement manifested itself even further in last night’s fixture against the French with the Swedes producing by far their best performance of the tournament against albeit a lacklustre French side.
The French knowing that even a defeat to Sweden could still see them qualify for the knockout stages headed into the match in a calm mindset however with the order of the final standings of the group there was still a significant amount to play for with the team that finishes second in the group having to travel to Donetsk and face the European and World Champions Spain. Yann M’Vila after recovering from an injury sustained in a pre tournament warm up match was given his first start of the competition after returning to the side for the final ten minutes in the 2-0 win over Ukraine, M’Vila in place of the more creative Yohan Cabaye alongside Alou Diarra at the heart of Les Tricolores midfield suggested that Laurent Blanc was looking for a display of more solidity from his side after they were poor defensively in both of their last two group games. Some would argue that this move would considerably lessen the attacking flair of the French however Blanc would have been confident that his attacking force of Ribery, Nasri and Benzema would have enough about them to cause an ageing Swedish defence problems. Blanc also dropped Jeremy Menez to the bench after his impressive display against Ukraine preferring the pace of Hatem Ben Arfa on the right hand side of the midfield, this may have been a tactical move to combat the pace of Martin Olsson after he showed signs of improvement against England.
Sweden started the match in a composed manner that replicated how they finished the England game dictating the tempo of the match and controlling possession with a Martin Olsson cross picking out the unmarked Ola Toivonen who headed wide when he really should have done better. Andreas Granqvist once again proved himself to be struggling with the pace of International football with Franck Ribery causing the Genoa right back considerable problems with his quick feet and trickery. The French however quickly used their technical superiority to their advantage in keep hold of the ball well with the Swedes seemingly happy for Les Bleus to keep the ball but create little with it. Much of the first half was played at a slow pace with the match essentially in a dormant state however it was clear that Erik Hamren’s Sweden had not just simply turned up for a friendly with fierce tackles from Olof Mellberg and the captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic stirring the crowd. Sweden appeared more balanced on the left hand side with Emir Bajrami in the team with his link up play with Martin Olsson being at times brilliant, the speed Bajrami possesses was much more conducive to Olsson’s game than the high technical ability of Elm with Sweden playing at a higher tempo than in previous matches. Granqvist was being given a really torrid time on the left hand side of the pitch with him seemingly unable to control Franck Ribery as previously mentioned and had Gael Clichy been more willing to get forward and support Ribery then France may well have been able to take charge of the match by constantly targeting Granqvist whom even before kickoff would have been diagnosed as the weak link in the Swedish back line. The first half in all honesty had turned into a really dour affair with the forward players on both sides becoming isolated and not being able to create chances for themselves, France seemed to lack the quick runs in behind that they had shown against both England and Ukraine and were seemingly flat and out of ideas against a packed Swedish defence, how much of this is down to fatigue nobody can be sure however the injection of pace that Blanc had hoped to achieve from selecting Ben Arfa to start had not been present causing many to wonder why the inform Menez had not been kept in the team. The heavily criticised French central defensive pairing of Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes were once again struggling with communication between the two being minimal at best which allowed Ola Toivonen to break free on several occasions however was ruled offside on all, the physical play of Toivonen albeit not shown with any great regularity throughout the first half was causing Mexes in particular significant problems with the Milan defender being out jumped for headers consistently throughout the match.
Despite the match being a rather poor spectacle up to half time there was a lot for Erik Hamren to be positive about with his side defending with composure and confidence, perhaps with the slight exception of Granqvist and were also passing the ball well with quick passing interchanges being portrayed by Sweden in attacking areas of the pitch. Hamren surprisingly made the decision to substitute Emir Bajrami at half time replacing him with Christian Wilhelmsson who has when on the pitch played in a positive manner throughout the tournament with there even being some calls for the Al-Hilal man to start against England. This change however quickly illustrated itself to be the right substitution with Wilhelmsson breaking free of the French defence with under a minute gone in the second half only to find himself to be ruled offside however this was a warning to the French that Wilhelmsson did have the pace and eye for a run to trouble them. Sweden’s positivity was finally rewarded in the fifty fourth minute of play when a Seb Larsson cross found the unmarked Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the edge of the penalty area who seemed to be able to adjust his body in a split second before powering a fantastically technical volley of the highest order past Hugo Lloris into the corner of the net, the Enigmatic Zlatan had produced one of the moments of magic that only players of his calibre can, this strike in so many ways similar to that of the great Frenchman Zinedine Zidane in the 2002 European Cup final. Sweden almost doubled their lead four minutes after when a Seb Larsson corner found the run of Olof Mellberg who side footed the ball into the ground only to see Hugo Lloris tip it over the bar in rather spectacular fashion. Franc obviously aware of the goings on at the Donbass Arena appeared more desperate in their play knowing that they did not want to face Spain in the quarter final, Laurent Blanc withdrew the disappointing Hatem Ben Arfa for Florent Malouda in the hope his experience and close ball control would provide France the spark with which to move forward. A booking for Philippe Mexes with just twenty minutes left to play ensured that the former Auxerre defender will miss France’s quarter final however on the evidence of all the group matches the question “Is that such a bad thing?” springs to mind. With the French attacks becoming more frequent the Swedes rather retreated into their shell putting their bodies on the line to block shots with the veteran Olof Mellberg stopping several clear goal scoring opportunities in what may well be his last match in the yellow of Sweden. A swirling shot hit by the seemingly Arsenal bound Yann M’Vila was the first really moment of worry for Sweden in the second half with Andreas Isaksson seeing it very late and only managing to parry it to safety. Sweden controlled much more of the ball in the second half with Erik Hamren’s side finally playing the way he wanted them to at the third time of asking, they had finally managed to keep hold of the ball for extended periods of time whilst at the same time creating attacks going forward, it is almost as if Sweden had finally become comfortable with the Hamren system in a tournament situation. France did however get a glorious chance to level the game with just seven minutes to play when Olivier Giroud headed wide from a corner after finding himself unmarked. Despite France having pushed their performance into a higher gear Sweden put the result beyond doubt in the first minute of injury time when Seb Larsson doubled their lead from close range, a Samuel Holmen strike rebounded of the crossbar before falling kindly to Larsson who duly powered home from six yards.
On paper Sweden’s Euro 2o12 campaign is one of disappointment however looking closely at it reveals that there are a lot more positives than negatives for Erik Hamren’s men. There was the sense that this performance against France was almost a coming of age for the Swedish squad with them finally getting to grips with Hamren’s tactics and putting in the sort of performance that they had shown themselves to be capable of in qualifying. There has been a gradual improvement as Sweden’s campaign has progressed with the first match against Ukraine being an unmitigated disaster which ultimately saw them eliminated the competition however since then the performances have improved with the Blågult pushing England hard in an encounter which saw Sweden display some positive attacking football and in the final match against France the performance was almost exactly how Hamren wanted it to be. Let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that there aren’t issues for Sweden with the right back area being a problem one with Andreas Granqvist on the evidence of Euro 2012 not being good enough for top level international football however there is much to be positive about in the Sweden camp with them getting it right at the third time of asking with the win against the French and hopefully this new experience in approaching tournament football with attacking gusto will see Sweden qualify for Brazil in 2014. The shrill sound of Pedro Proença’s full time whistle may not just have signified the end of Sweden’s Euro 2012 campaign but also the beginning of the new era under Erik Hamren.