European Championship in focus: Spotlighting Sweden

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Let’s not dance around it. When we think of the Sweden national team, we all think of the same thing:

Man that matters:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic: There is no team in this tournament that is as dependent on a single player as Sweden is on Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Thankfully, head coach Erik Hamren realizes this. Rather than employing the conservative, individualism-minimalizing approach of predecessor (Lars Lagerbeck), Hamren’s adopted a more open style that can get the most out of Ibrahimovic, even his star was absent at the beginning of his tenure. But after he convinced the now-captain to come out of his brief retirement, the team has been one of the more dangerous sides in UEFA.

Needing to win their last qualifier to slot directly into Euro 2012 (avoiding a playoff), Sweden registered a 3-2, come-from-behind win against the Netherlands despite playing without a suspended Ibrahimovic. A 3-1, February win in Zagreb reaffirmed the progress Hamren’s made since Sweden failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Against Croatia, Ibrahimovic posted a goal and two assists. If he’s similarly motivated in Ukraine, Sweden could win their group. If there’s one weakness England, France and Ukraine share, it’s central defenses that came be exploited.

First-round games:

June 11: vs. Ukraine (Kiev, Ukraine)
June 15: vs. England (Kiev, Ukraine)
June 19: vs. France (Kiev, Ukraine)

Foursome of knowledge:

  • Sweden’s main questions are in defense, where veteran Olof Mellberg will be surrounded by doubts. Jonas and Martin Olsson will man the left side, while Celtic’s Mikael Lustig will have to overcome some injury concerns to assume his customary spot on the right. Fortunately for Hamren, neither England nor Ukraine possess enough attacking power to worry the Swedes.
  • France, however, does have enough power, but by the time Sweden face Les Bleus, they could already be into the next round. If Ukraine (Sweden’s first opponent) is as troubled as some suspect, the opener could build momentum. And after facing a Wayne Rooney-less England in their second match, Sweden could be on six points by the time they meet France.
  • Worries about the defense could be tempered by the quality of Sweden’s deep midfielders. Lyon’s Kim Kallstrom is the best of the group, but partner Anders Svensson will bring 126 caps of experience to what will likely be his last major tournament. If either are forced out, Hamren will be able to turn to CSKA Moscow’s Pontus Wernbloom.
  • Sweden has major dark horse potential. If they get out of Group D, their most likely opponents from Group C (Spain, Croatia) will have their own issues trying to match up with Ibrahimovic and Johan Elmander. They’ve only made one semifinal (1992, as tournament hosts), but given how the draw’s worked out this year, Sweden only needs one break to replicate that performance.

Where they are going:

Sweden should expect to get out of their group. It’s just a matter of executing. In a tournament where all the favorites are flawed, Sweden could make a run, provided Ibrahimovic is willing to carry them.

source:
Squad:

Goalkeepers: Andreas Isaksson (PSV), Johan Wiland (Copenhagen), Par Hansson (Helsingborg)

Defenders: Mikael Lustig (Celtic), Olof Mellberg (Olympiakos), Andreas Granqvist (Genoa), Martin Olsson (Blackburn Rovers), Jonas Olsson (West Bromwich Albion), Mikael Antonsson (Bologna), Behrang Safari (Anderlecht)

Midfielders: Rasmus Elm (AZ), Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland), Anders Svensson (Elfsborg), Kim Kallstrom (Lyon), Pontus Wernbloom (CSKA Moscow), Samuel Holmen (Istanbul BB), Christian Wilhelmsson (Al-Hilal)

Forwards: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden), Johan Elmander (Galatasaray), Tobias Hysen (IFK Goteborg), Emir Bajrami (Twente), Ola Toivonen (PSV), Markus Rosenberg (Werder Bremen)

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