Cruising downhill, absent youth, and France-Sweden: Tuesday’s Euro 2012 A-Side

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Get one point from an already eliminated Sweden and France is through to the quarterfinals, though on Monday, Spain provided them with all the incentive they’ll need to go for first in Group D. The group’s winner gets Italy next Sunday, a quarterfinal matchup to has to be to France’s liking. Should they stumble, draw Sweden, and somehow finish second in Group D, they’ll get Spain, against whom a possession team that isn’t great on the counter could be left searching for a way to get into the game.

Normally this would be the place where I transition into a don’t forget about Sweden paragraph, but today, I can’t muster one up. The Swedes were eliminated after Friday’s 3-2 loss to England. Lacking cohesion and having gone through a number of lineup chances before and during the tournament, it’s difficult to see what collective will can be brought to bear on this match. They are, after all, facing a France team that was generally favored to win the group.

Those circumstances make Tuesday’s match a good test for France’s new core, albeit paradoxically so. Against England, France seemed slightly naive and failed to push for the decisive goal against a team that posed almost no threat. It’s a small tournament lesson France needs to learn. On Tuesday comes another tournament lesson: How to take care of business against an already eliminated opponent.

Kickoff is at 2:45 p.m. Eastern, the same time England and Ukraine kick off in Group D’s other match. With a draw, France goes through (and would still win the group if England-Ukraine draw). With a win, they take Group D provided their goal difference continues to best England’s.

Here’s your playlist:

Side 1: France vs. Sweden

1. Walking downhill

France’s road back from their South Africa episode was intended to be a slow process. Laurent Blanc initially downplayed his team’s chances impact on this tournament, yet here we are. France has a third round game against an eliminated team to stay undefeated, clinch their group, and earn a favorable quarterfinal matchup. I don’t know if that qualifies as having an impact, but a place in the semifinals certainly would.

After seeing the improvement France made between rounds one and two, we’re reminded Les Bleus are still a work in process, if a process that’s pretty far down the road. We’re also reminded Laurent Blanc has crafted a very responsive team into which he’s completely attuned. The tweaks he made between England and Ukraine worked perfectly, taking France from a dominant if frustrated side to a team thoroughly in control.

It’s as if the hard work is done. Now, they’re walking downhill toward their goal. That goal wasn’t winning titles – it was something more ethereal.

When Blanc came in, the goal was restoring the pride surrounding France’s national team. In less than two years, Blanc seems to have done that.

2. Find the other one

The next step for France is continuing to solidify their defense. Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami were in focus at the beginning of the tournament, and they remain in focus now. The only difference: One of the players is finally coming around.

Mexes is coming off a strong game against Ukraine. Like France’s overall performance, Mexes was calm, controlling, and dominant. It was exactly the kind of effort that Blanc envisioned while maintaing his faith in the inconsistent Milan defender.

Now it’s Adil Rami’s turn. The Valencia center half has struggled in 2012, and in Ukraine, he hasn’t shown the same progress as his partner. Andriy Shevchenko was able to beat him twice on Friday, and poor decisions on the ball have made him a problem with and without the ball.

source:  Against Sweden, Rami gets one more warm up before he needs to be ready for primetime. As with Mexes, Blanc’s maintained his faith. Now it’s time for Rami to reward him.

3. Picking up the pieces

Sweden was the second team eliminated from the tournament after Ireland, who were run out of Group C after two rounds. Sweden’s story is far different. They had seconds leads in each of their first two games yet are playing for nothing on the final day of group.

After the 3-2 loss to England that confirmed Sweden’s elimination, Erik Hamrén admitted to being in shock. You can understand why.

What’s left to play for? Pride? It may already be gone. Glory? There’s none to be had. The thrill of taking down France? They’re not a major rival.

It’s the same question we posed yesterday when talking about Ireland, but for Sweden, there seems even less incentive to care. When the players step onto the field, their instincts will take over. Perhaps something amazing will happen. One day out from kickoff, it’s hard to see what.

4. Pointless change

Nobody on Sweden’s Euro roster is under 24 years old. While a situation like this would normally be a perfect chance to go young an inject some life into the team, there’s very little “young” in this team. Even Ola Toivonen, for years a prospect on rumor mills, is 25.

It’s a concern for Sweden as they heading into World Cup qualifying. Where’s the new blood? This team failed to qualify for South Africa 2010 but got a boost when Hamrén opened things up. But that change didn’t lead to anything, so what’s next? Or, who’s next?
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