KIEV -- After France eased past co-host Ukraine 2-0 on Friday, French manager Laurent Blanc was relieved.
The French had been coasting, entering the affair with a 22-match unbeaten streak, but hadn’t won at a World Cup or European Championship in six years – the days when his buddy Zinedine Zidane roamed the midfield with genius and delivered the occasional head butt.
The pressure was lifted.
Now, several outside the French camp, including Swedish midfielder Kim Kallstrom, suggested more wins at Euro 2012 could be on the way.
“Do they have a chance in the tournament? Of course they do,” Kallstrom, who plays his club football for Lyon, said. “I believed so even before the tournament. It’s the strongest team in the group. They have a chance to go very far.”
Some consider Les Bleus to have the deepest squad in the event, especially boasting options in midfield, and Blanc is instilling a winners’ mentality. Kallstrom is a fan.
“He’s a coach I believe the French people have a great respect for after a fairly difficult situation at the World Cup in South Africa,” Kallstrom said. “He was the right man with his charisma and his way of leading the French national team back to the spotlight. I met him a few times and he’s really good at playing a good type of football, and his tactical experience is very good.”
High praise indeed for the man dubbed "The President," but Blanc has played down his own contribution as well as expectations for his side.
The first goal for France, which meets already eliminated Sweden on Tuesday, is to reach the quarterfinals. It would help further to erase memories of South Africa, when a player mutiny actually had many sympathizing with the eccentric Raymond Domenech, Blanc’s predecessor.
Blanc, in another bit of good business, has gone a long way toward easing the pain, and Franck Ribery has slowly become a fan favorite again. Patrice Evra, well, remains a loose cannon.
Only a miraculous turn of events would see France not reach the last eight: France would need to lose, Ukraine would have to beat England in the other Group D game, and France’s goal difference would have to be inferior to England’s. An unlikely hat trick. Then again, who would have thought Russia and the Netherlands would be ousted on back-to-back days?
“There was joy and satisfaction after the Ukraine game, and rightly so, but we have to focus on our preparations now,” Blanc said. “One team is playing to qualify and the other unfortunately isn’t. But they will be playing to win. We can’t underestimate Sweden.”
Besides, France wants to win the group and thus avoid meeting Spain in the quarterfinals. Topping the group would instead bring a repeat of the Euro 2000 final against Italy – a game Blanc started and the French won to complete the World Cup and Euro double.
Blanc hinted he might tinker with his squad since three players are a booking away from missing the quarterfinals: impressive right back Mathieu Debuchy, filling in admirably for Bacary Sagna; much-mocked center back Philippe Mexes, a standout against Ukraine; and one of the goal scorers against Ukraine, Jeremy Menez.
It’s unlikely Blanc would rest Ribery, who tormented the Ukraine defense, and Karim Benzema, the provider on both goals.
Goals haven’t been hard to come by for Sweden. Unfortunately for the Blagult, defending has been the issue. The combination is atypical, historically, for Sweden.
But the signs have been positive since Wednesday's crushing 3-2 loss to England. Sweden’s standout performer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, said he had no intention of retiring from the international setup. There was speculation it might happen.
All the players – the ones fit – took part in an optional practice on Sunday.
And Sweden, which had 18,000 of its fans in attendance for the England game, wants to give veterans Anders Svensson and Olof Mellberg the best possible send-off. Unlike Ibra, the duo is expected to call time on their international career when Sweden’s involvement at the Euros officially ends.
For manager Erik Hamren, it’s also a chance to carry some momentum into World Cup qualifiers that begin in September.
“If we win [Tuesday], we don’t have three points in World Cup [qualifying], but we’ll have a lot of self-confidence when we start qualification,” Hamren said. “So it means a lot. It’s not only for us. It’s for our supporters. It’s for the other teams, too. But most of all it’s for ourselves to get self-respect.”
Under Blanc, the French have it already.