France's Blanc wary of wounded Sweden
France face Sweden tonight knowing a draw will be enough to see them into the knock-out stages of a tournament for the first time since the 2006 World Cup. Although the Swedes are already out, the French Cockerel will not be counting its chickens.
Laurent Blanc got his message out loud and clear this week.
With Tuesday’s opponents Sweden already thinking about home, Blanc has spent the build up to the match in Kiev making sure complacency does not become the biggest threat to his team’s hopes of making the quarter-finals.
France have their fate in their own hands. After a solid 1-1 draw against England was followed up by an impressive 2-0 victory over co-hosts Ukraine a draw or even a loss by only one goal would be enough to see them through.
But a heavy defeat against a wounded Sweden side would destroy all the hard work of Blanc’s team.
“It is vital we do not underestimate the Swedish side,” Blanc, who has been strongly linked this week with the vacant manager's post at Tottenham, told reporters.
His players will have the same message ringing in their ears. With a place on the knock-out stages within their grasp, now would be an inopportune time for France to end an impressive 23-match unbeaten streak that dates all the way back to September 2010.
“There is a risk of losing your concentration when you win whatever the match, even more so at a European Championship,” said Blanc. “There was obviously joy and satisfaction after the match against Ukraine but after that we had to get straight back into our preparation for this game."
“There is a team who is playing for a place in the next round and a side who cannot qualify but is going to try and win the game,” Blanc added. “They’re still a very difficult side to play against. They are physical, a playing style based on a lot of strength in the tackle.”
Sweden out 'to win'
Sweden, for their part, have vowed not to make it easy for Blanc’s side. After suffering crushing defeats to both Ukraine and England, despite having led in both matches, the only motivation Sweden have tonight is to regain their pride.
Swedish midfielder Kim Kallstrom, who knows all about France from playing with Ligue 1 side Lyon, said his team was determined to leave Kiev with a victory.
“This is a big tournament and we’ve waited a long time for this. For us, this is about finishing the job and preparing ourselves for World Cup qualifying,” Kallstrom said. “We are here to win and show our best side.”
The biggest threat to France progressing looks likely to come from their explosive striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the undoubted star of Swedish football.
With Sweden already out, Ibrahimovic, who has been linked with a summer move to Paris Saint-Germain, might enjoy playing without the weight of a country’s hopes on his shoulders. If the Milan striker is in the right mood, France’s central defenders could be in for fraught night.
Swedish coach Erik Hamren said he would field his strongest side in Kiev in a bid to win back some “self respect”.
Goals could count
But whatever team he puts out should not pose too many problems for a France side boasting a potent attacking force.
Sweden have conceded five goals in two games, and France’s fearsome front trio of Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri will hoping to heap more misery on the Swedish defence in Kiev.
Goals could be important for France, as they bid to finish top of Group D and avoid a quarter-final clash against World and European champions Spain.
If France beat Sweden and Group D rivals England beat Ukraine in Donetsk tonight, both teams will qualify but top spot will go to the team with the better goal difference.
A second-placing for France will set up a mouth-watering tie against old foes Italy.
But Blanc is refusing to consider anything beyond tonight’s match.
“Our desire is to win Tuesday’s match,” he said. “We are not anticipating what could happen. We will play the match and not think who will be our next opponent.”
Blanc has not given too many clues away over his starting line up for Tuesday’s match, but after his call not to underestimate Sweden it is unlikely he will put out a weakened team.
He may, however, consider resting right-back Mathieu Debuchy, centre-back Philippe Mexes and attacker Jeremy Menez, who are all one yellow card away from missing the next match.
Gael Clichy looks set to keep his place in the team ahead of Patrice Evra after performing well against Ukraine, as does the gifted but erratic Menez, scorer of France’s first goal against the co-hosts.
After the debacle of France’s 2010 World Cup campaign and the poor performance at Euro 2008, the French public are starting to once again believe in Les Bleus.
It would be a shame for both them and the Euro 2012 tournament if France’s adventure ended prematurely tonight.