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Jun 18, 2012

France looks to clinch Group D

When the draw was made for Euro 2012, Tuesday's tussle between France and Sweden in Kiev figured to take on great importance. France continued to make strides under Laurent Blanc, and Sweden's transformation under Erik Hamren was going smoothly: Would it be a potential battle for first in Group D?

Uh, no.

Although France hasn't stumbled, Sweden has, eliminated early after losing both its matches. The Swedes already have one eye on World Cup qualifying.

What's on the line?

Only an unlikely scenario would see France not reach the quarterfinals: Les Bleus would have to lose to Sweden, and Ukraine would have to beat England in Group D's other match. Even then, it would come down to goal difference between England and France. And keep in mind that France is unbeaten in 23 games. However, France wants to finish first and thereby likely avoid Spain in the quarterfinals.

You know what it's all about for Sweden: pride. Sweden so easily could have won both its games. "We'll go for it," captain and talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic told reporters. "We're playing for honor. We are going to bring some points home with us."

Style and tactics:

The Swedes largely relied on defense and organization to win games under former manager Lars Lagerback. Hamren prefers a more attacking approach in a 4-4-1-1 (with Ibrahimovic in a deeper role), which led to an overflow of goals in qualifying. However, the defense now isn't so reliable. Sweden has conceded a combined five goals in the two losses to Ukraine and England -- and was unable to protect leads.

France has more steel in its squad with the likes of Alou Diarra, Yohan Cabaye and Yann M'Vila, the sought-after 21-year-old who shook off an ankle injury to play 20 minutes against Ukraine; Cabaye went off with a slight thigh problem. Blanc has mostly adopted a 4-2-3-1 during his time as manager, but it seems he's now settled on a 4-3-3 in Ukraine. Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri form a dangerous trio.

Players to watch:

For France: Karim Benzema, Jeremy Menez, Philippe Mexes

The French are winning, and Benzema played a part against Ukraine, testing keeper Andriy Pyatov in the opening stages and setting up both goals. However, he would like to get on the score sheet himself. Menez, who started in place of Florent Malouda, did. "Menez is a player who needs confidence," Blanc said. "He is a quick player, and it was a very encouraging game from him." The French media poked fun at Mexes before the tournament, but he barely put a foot wrong against Ukraine. He'll go up against his Milan teammate, Ibrahimovic. 

For Sweden: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Olof Mellberg, Kim Kallstrom

Ibrahimovic said after the loss to England that he had no intention of ending his international career, and that came as a relief to the Blagult faithful. He shone against Ukraine and, in flashes, made England's defense look silly. Has Mellberg suddenly become a goal scorer? He netted one and created another. Too bad he wasn't as solid in the back four, as Sweden was breached yet again from an aerial ball. Kallstrom and Sebastian Larsson have provided assists with crosses this tournament, and Kallstrom will savor a matchup against several players he sees week in, week out in Ligue 1.  

What we can expect:

Even though the Swedes are under little pressure, they don't want to emulate the Netherlands and go 0-3. It's an embarrassing record and something Hamren wants to avoid. Thus, maybe Sweden won't be as reckless offensively. France won't change its approach despite a draw guaranteeing progress. The top spot is the objective, and France will have a considerable edge in midfield.

Intangibles:

Nearly 20,000 Swedish fans largely contributed to a wonderful atmosphere in Kiev on Friday, and if nothing else, they'll have a chance to give Mellberg and midfielder Anders Svensson a proper send-off. The duo are expected to retire from international football after Euro 2012. Svensson's 129 caps put him second on Sweden's all-time list, while Mellberg would claim his 117th -- enough for sole possession of third -- if he plays.

Who'll win?

France will keep on rolling, winning 2-1. 

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