France surrendered their 22 match unbeaten record with a slow, disjointed performance in Kiev that will have Laurent Blanc concerned about his sides chances of going past the quarter-final stage of this tournament. France will now play Spain as they finished runners-up in Group B thanks to this defeat to a Swedish side that had already been eliminated.
Despite the French sporadically threatening in a nervy affair, the Swedes had the majority of the chances and took the lead through a superb Zlatan Ibrahimovic volley shortly after half-time, before Sebastian Larsson sealed the win in the final stages of the match. Whilst the result restored a great deal of pride to a poor tournament for Erik Hamren’s men, the French will head into Saturday’s difficult encounter with Spain facing questions over their mentality after limping through the group stage.
Sweden; (4-5-1) Isaksson, Granqvist, J Olsson, Mellberg, M Olsson, Toivanen (Wernbloom ’78), Svensson (Holmen ’78), Larsson, Kallstrom, Bajrami (Wilhelmsson ’46), Ibrahimovic
Scorers- Ibrahimovic ’54, Larsson ‘90
France; (4-2-3-1) Lloris, Debuchy, Mexes, Rami, Evra, Diarra, M’Villa (Giroud ‘83), Nasri (Menez ’77), Ben Arfa (Malouda ‘59), Ribery, Benzema
How the game played out
After voicing displeasure in playing behind the main striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was given the nod to start at the tip of the team, with Hamren preferring to flood the midfield against France’s quick build-up play on the edge of the box. Anders Svensson continued in his defensive patrolling role, while Emir Bajrami came in to provide some forward running to support Ibrahimovic leading the line.
Ola Toivanen came back in on the left and the Swedes looked far more balanced than they have done previously in this tournament. Hamren will regret not using this system from the start of the tournament as they have appeared sluggish and poor in possession in defeats to Ukraine and England which have seen them depart Poland and Ukraine at the earliest stage.
For France, Yann M’Villa came in for the injured Yohann Cabaye as expected, whilst Jeremy Menez was surprisingly dropped, after breaking the deadlock in Donetsk against Ukraine, in favour of the previously unused Hatem Ben Arfa.
In an enthusiastic start from a Swedish unit that looked desperate to prove they do have some quality after a poor campaign, it was slightly ironic that despite showing their own failings at full-back in the opening two games, it was them threatening with wide crosses as both Larsson and Toivanen wasting early headed chances.
France struggled in the face of a congested Swedish midfield and rather than enjoying the space between the lines they did against Ukraine to open up the back four, they were restricted to mostly long-range efforts, Hatem Ben-Arfa having a speculative effort that just flew over. Typically of a disorganised defence that has cost Sweden dear in Ukraine, it was their own disorganisation that nearly cost them dear in presenting France with their first golden chance, Anders Isaksson having to be alert to beat away a shot by Franck Ribery.
France were struggling at the back too and the centre-half who came in to the tournament facing questions over his place in the team, AC Milan’s Phillipe Mexes, failed to cut out a long ball which Toivanen, a clear threat throughout with scampering movement, latched onto to round Hugo Lloris and agonisingly find the post.
With Mathieu Debuchy and Gael Clichy following the usual instructions of persistently attacking at every occasion, the Swedish were having a lot of joy attacking on the flanks and it was in the second half that Christian Wilhelmsson began to imprint his creative talent on proceedings down the right-side. Firstly he crossed for Sebastian Larsson to be denied by Lloris, before his deep cross a few minutes later found the long legs of Zlatan Ibrahimovic who thrashed a sliding scissor-kick volley home into the corner of the net for 1-0.
Ibrahimovic, so often accused of failing to turn it on in the biggest occasion, had imprinted his mark on the tournament after being subdued in the opening two games. After his goal he had enlivened, dropping off to play in Wilhelmsson who was denied by Lloris, before Olof Mellberg, scorer of two goals vs. England, was denied after diverting his corner towards goal.
Blanc duly rang the changes, Menez and Malouda came on for the ineffectual and lightweight Nasri and Ben Arfa respectively, whilst Olivier Giroud came on to provide striking support for an isolated Karim Benzema. They did improve, but a resolute Swedish back-line, led by the battling Jonas Olsson and Olof Mellberg blocked everything that was attempted towards goal.
Giroud did manage to threaten Isaksson’s goal as he sent a free-header wide, but the Swedish held firm, putting the icing on the cake through Sebastian Larsson’s second, coming after Samuel Holmen’s effort rebounded off the crossbar.
The Swedish will fly home wondering what might have been had they played with such defensive solidity, guile and fluidity from the very start, while the French will prepare for Saturday’s quarter final meeting with holders Spain after two performances in which they operated far from their mercurial best.
Christian Wilhelmsson- The right-winger was a constant menace with his skill, pace and trickery on the flanks, not to mention his crossing that provided Ibrahimovic with his superb opening goal. The left-back spot has been a problem area for France during their time in Ukraine and Gael Clichy’s position ahead of Patrice Evra may be looked at with the ease in which he was exposed by Wilhelmsson.
Phillipe Mexes- despite a catastrophic error that let Ola Toivanen into hit the post, the AC Milan defender coped the best he could with his on-form club team-mate Ibrahimovic and was overall solid in the air. A few question marks will still linger over his place in the team but he has had a better tournament than what many expected so far and it is a telling indictment that many observers are now calling for his partner Adil Rami to be taken out of the firing line.
What to expect in the upcoming games
Sweden have shown here that they did have quality and could have progressed had Hamren inserted the system that promoted a firm defensive support and a fluid attack with runners supporting the target-man of Ibrahimovic, they may have progressed in a tournament that they leave in the first round.
France meanwhile play Spain on Saturday with Laurent Blanc facing tough dilemmas on how to organise his team. The vibrant attacking four that was much heralded in the build-up to the tournament has been sub-standard bar a 45 minute second-half spell against Spain and one of the flair players may be sacrificed here as they attempt to cope with Spain’s superb movement and passing ability.
Their defence on the flanks will have to be far more reserved in an attacking sense as Spain like to overload on the sides with full-backs taking every opportunity to pop up as an auxiliary wide winger, they cannot afford to give the same exposure to the back two as they did here. Neither can they do so in central midfield as Yann M’Villa will be expected to continue alongside Alliou Diarra as Blanc opts for midfield physicality to stop Spain’s midfielders settling on the ball in dangerous areas. Yohann Cabaye may also return from injury to take part in what will be a more work-man-like midfield.