KIEV, Ukraine – When you’ve had the recent history France has at major tournaments, reaching the quarterfinals at a European Championships should be a positive.
French manager Laurent Blanc has said on numerous occasions in Ukraine it was his first objective. In that sense, it’s job done.
Everyone has gotten off the bus this summer, too. As a World Cup and European Championship winner as a player, Blanc commands respect.
When France tied England and then beat Ukraine – the latter served the dual purpose of ending Les Bleus’ six-year winless streak at a Euro or World Cup and extending their overall unbeaten streak to 23 – it was indeed going so well.
But in a matter of 90 minutes Tuesday at Kiev’s Olympic stadium, the mood changed.
Sweden, already eliminated, beat a largely uninspired France 2-0 to condemn the French to a quarterfinal against the team no one wants to face, Spain, and end the long unblemished sequence. England’s 1-0 victory over Ukraine in the other Group D finale relegated France to second place.
“The [Swedes] are the ones going home tomorrow,” Blanc pointed out. “They’re the ones, so I think we need to stay optimistic. We didn’t make it easy for ourselves because it’s not an easy thing to play Spain and we’ll have one day less to prepare. We’re going to have to put in a good performance to beat them. It’s difficult to imagine with the way we played tonight.”
Blanc, often praised for reversing French fortunes, wasn’t let off the hook by the French press in the wake of the unexpected defeat. Blanc made two changes in midfield and they didn’t work.
He could justify bringing in Yann M’Vila for Yohan Cabaye, since Cabaye came off against Ukraine with a thigh injury; but not starting Jeremy Menez, who like Cabaye scored against Ukraine, provoked more criticism.
Menez was a booking away from missing the quarterfinals, yet so were right back Mathieu Debuchy and central defender Philippe Mexes. They both started. Hatem Ben Arfa, a star late last season for Newcastle, did little coming in for Menez.
Mexes, by the way, did collect a yellow, a foolish one, which some French fans will tell you isn’t so bad.
Blanc was asked about his shuffling and admitted he got it wrong.
“We could think that we won’t pick the same 11 again if we were to play the game again,” he said. “But we can’t. We need to be able to accept the defeat and move on. When I took over two years ago, if I said we would qualify for the quarterfinals at Euro 2012, we would’ve signed and taken it that day.”
France was dominated in the midfield, which came as a surprise since Anders Svensson, with his 35-year-old legs, was one of the Swedes in the middle of the park. The first 10 minutes provided a good indication of what was to come. Svensson clattered into Franck Ribery, and France’s Alou Diarra hacked down forward Ola Toivonen. Sweden won most of the battles.
Samir Nasri, whom Blanc and the French press have criticized before, was only mediocre.
Menez and fellow second-half substitute Olivier Giroud had France’s best and only real opportunities in the 82nd and 83rd minutes. When Blanc said he was pleased with the offense, then, he was probably being lenient. Menez was denied by keeper Andreas Isaksson and Giroud’s header missed the target.
Karim Benzema, the big man up front, had half chances, which weren’t taken, and he still hasn’t scored this tournament. He’ll need to fire against Spain, and Blanc knows it.
“He wants to score goals, so he might be frustrated because he can’t,” Blanc said. “He’s trying a lot. I hope that he will be able to get off the mark versus the Spanish.”
In Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Blanc added, Sweden had a player able to make the difference. No one was going to argue with him after Ibrahimovic’s stunning volley gave Sweden the lead in front of its numerous, vocal fans in the 54th minute.
But it was substitute Christian Wilhelmsson, one of three Swedish players probably playing in their last game internationally, who made the difference. Wilhelmsson created a chance for Sebastian Larsson seconds earlier and played a role in the buildup to Larsson’s goal in injury time.
Swedish manager Erik Hamren and midfielder Kim Kallstrom, the Lyon midfielder, made it clear on Monday that motivation wouldn’t be an issue given the number of Swedish fans – they totaled about 20,000 against England – and the professionalism of the players. Blanc, curiously, said he didn’t expect Sweden to play so well.
“We got a good finish in front our supporters and it was one of the things we discussed this morning, to finish in a good way for them so they didn’t have to travel down for nothing,” Ibrahimovic said. “It feels like we’ve been playing at home. I would like to thank them. We could have went out there and played a lazy game but we showed a good mentality.”
The Swedes, instead of concluding at 1-2 and finishing last in the group, could’ve won it and gone undefeated. They blew leads against Ukraine and England.
“I’m happy with the way we behaved,” Hamren said. “I’m really proud of the players, but at the same time it’s a bit painful. It hurts. I think we’re all a bit sad after the game.”
If it makes Hamren feel better, so are the French.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.