KIEV, Ukraine – In a hurry, the optimism surrounding France at the European Championship has faded.
Set to win Group D and avoid a confrontation with defending European and world champion Spain, France lost 2-0 to already-eliminated Sweden on a steamy Tuesday night in Kiev to set up that unwanted pairing in the quarterfinals. England, as group winner (yes, you’re seeing that right), gets Italy instead.
After France won at a major tournament for the first time in six years Friday, out went Les Bleus’ 23-match unbeaten streak with a stunning Zlatan Ibrahimovic volley in the 54th minute.
This time Sweden, which blew leads against Ukraine and England, hung on. With a little luck, a phrase manager Erik Hamren likes to use, the Blagult might have gone 3-0 instead of 1-2 and heading home. Better defending would have helped, too.
This was no smash-and-grab for the Swedes.
They were hungrier from the start, setting up two headed chances in the opening five minutes against the flat French.
The introduction of veteran Christian Wilhelmsson, likely playing his last game for Sweden, had the desired effect for Hamren. He set up Sebastian Larsson in the 53rd minute, forcing Hugo Lloris into a good save. Within seconds, Larsson’s cross was acrobatically converted by Ibra. The French were rocking, and Sweden almost got a second five minutes later when Olof Mellberg’s flick had Lloris scrambling again.
French subs Jeremy Menez and Olivier Giroud came closest for France as it chased the game, but Larsson ensured all three points in injury time.
Not the way France wanted to prepare for the knockout stage.
CHANGES DIDN’T WORK: French manager Laurent Blanc will be under the spotlight now. Blanc made two changes to the side that beat Ukraine, and both came in midfield. Yohan Cabaye, nursing a slight thigh problem, made way for Yann M’Vila, and Hatem Ben Arfa, whose second half of the season with Newcastle earned him a spot on the French team, replaced Menez. Menez scored against Ukraine but was a booking away from being suspended for the quarterfinals, so Blanc presumably didn’t want to take any chances.
The moves didn’t really work, as the team lacked cohesion.
Cabaye is a midfielder who, while able to tackle and do the dirty work, offers plenty going forward with a sweet right foot. M’Vila is talented but still raw, and although he happily chased the ball – and Swedes – he lacked versatility.
Ben Arfa lost possession several times in the first half, attempting low-percentage shots from distance and sending an effort wide when given a good ball by Karim Benzema. He eventually got the hook. One would expect Cabaye and Menez to return to the lineup against Spain.
Another player a yellow card away from missing the quarters, central defender Philippe Mexes, did get cautioned. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Losing an aerial battle in the 10th minute, he allowed Ola Toivonen to race clear. Toivonen hit the post.
NASRI NO SHOW: Samir Nasri has waged a personal battle with the French media at the European Championship. He put in a man-of-the-match display in France’s 1-all tie with England on the opening match day, and the scribes had to praise him. He won there.
But he was ineffective in France’s 2-0 win over Ukraine on match day No. 2, which the French media pointed out with glee.
Against Sweden, Nasri was a nonfactor in the first half, making himself known only when he went down in a heap under a Kim Kallstrom challenge. Still feeling the effects, he mishit a ball that led to a Swedish counter.
Nasri was better in the second half, setting up Mexes when France trailed and sending a shot wide from inside the box. Still, not good enough.
Blanc now has an interesting choice to make in the quarterfinals if Nasri is fit. Does the manager keep faith in Nasri, who can dominate opposition defenses when in the mood, or does he opt for a more consistent, yet less potentially spectacular, midfielder in a game in which all 11 men on the pitch need to be committed?
BENZEMA WORRY: More for Blanc to ponder. It’s all well and good for Benzema to be setting up goals, as he did against Ukraine, but he needs to start scoring. It’s unlikely France will be able to beat Spain if his scoring drought this tournament continues.
Call it a half-chance, but Benzema skied the ball over the goal in the 18th minute, and on a better opportunity, he was 2 yards wide as he cut in and shot in the 51st minute.
Blanc wouldn’t possibly insert Giroud into the starting lineup instead of Benzema in the quarters, would he? No, don’t think so. He has built up Benzema’s confidence the past two years and won’t desert him now.
NICE SEND-OFF: What international careers Anders Svensson and Mellberg have had for Sweden. They’ve each earned more than 100 caps, with Svensson getting to 130 and Mellberg to 117 following Tuesday’s action.
Even if Mellberg almost contributed to a French goal in the first half with a poor header, the Swedish faithful will tell you the duo – and Wilhelmsson – deserved to go out on a high.
Oh, and so did those fans who created a special atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium the past two weeks.