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Jun 14, 2012

Sweden is all out of sorts

KIEV, Ukraine – The Swedes. So nice, polite and nonconfrontational.

Well, most of the time.

Surveying what's happened in the Swedish camp in the last few days, you'd think they were the Dutch, who have a habit of infighting. 

On the eve of Sweden's Euro 2012 game with England on Friday in Kiev, reports surfaced that there were divisions in the team. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (surprise, surprise) led one group, and rugged central defender Olof Mellberg led the other, so it went. Vice captain Anders Svensson denied that a rift exists.    

Manager Erik Hamren made headlines by calling his team "cowards" after a 2-1 loss to Ukraine on Monday. Hamren used the same word in Thursday's prematch press conference. He still wasn't happy.

But the biggest furor centered around a video making the rounds on the Internet. It featured Swedish players trying to hit Johan Wiland's bare backside after the backup keeper came out worst in a game called the "Pig," where the players stand in a circle and try to prevent the ball from touching the ground.

Rather than seeing it as a bit of fun and team bonding, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and several other politicians were outraged.

Much ado about nothing or justified criticism?

Hamren sidestepped the issue.

"If you look at the event, from the big perspective, I can understand that some people that don't know how it worked would react to it," he said, "but I don't think that's a subject for discussion at the moment."

What is more pressing for Hamren is trying to beat England, which has a renewed spring in its step in Group D following a 1-1 draw with France.

If ever there was a game to take minds off the events of the past several days, it's one against the Three Lions. The links are many.

Sebastian Larsson, who joined Hamren in addressing the media, plays in the Premier League, as does another of Monday's starters, Martin Olsson. Mellberg played seven years at Aston Villa, and Johan Elmander, who might replace Markus Rosenberg as striker, spent time at Bolton. England boss Roy Hodgson is a much-respected figure in Sweden. He worked there in the '70s and '80s and changed the way the sport is played.   

For a small nation, both in size and soccer terms, Sweden has tended to overachieve against England. Only once since 1968 -- in their last meeting, a friendly in November -- has Sweden lost to England. 

"You're never going to have an easy game versus England," Larsson said. "We expect them to be very organized, as they have been. I don't know if I expect them to be extremely defensive. Both teams need the points.

"We know what we can do. If we play to our capabilities, we're capable of beating them."

If Larsson and teammates needed extra motivation, England captain Steven Gerrard provided it about two hours later. When asked whether the English would beat Sweden if they played at the same level as against France, Gerrard didn't hesitate.

"Yeah, I'd say so," he responded. "With all due respect, they're not France, so I think we can be a bit more bold and ambitious. But that's not to say we won't be trying to learn from the mistakes we made in the first game."

The confidence from Gerrard would lead one to believe the English swarmed the French in Donetsk. It was hardly the case.

England, missing the suspended Wayne Rooney and with injuries to the likes of Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, created two good opportunities -- and scored on one. French manager Laurent Blanc and defender Patrice Evra weren't kind as they assessed England's defensive style. That's the way they play now under Hodgson, or at least until Rooney returns.

"We have to make certain the last pass or cross or the last shot is clinical because it's hard to get good chances at this level," Hodgson said. "You have to be effective when the chances come your way."

In Ibrahimovic, Sweden does possess a danger man: He's scored in four consecutive internationals. About 18,000 Swedish fans, dwarfing the English support, will be rooting him on at Olympic Stadium.  

"It's been a tough time since the loss to Ukraine," Hamren said. "It hurts to lose. You don't feel good as a player or leader. Our performance wasn't what we were wishing for. But these feelings disappear really fast. Yesterday we had a really good training session with our supporters. It was really important to me and a lot of others. It was really special. The last two days have given us a lot of good energy."

Based on recent incidents, it was needed. 

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