Industrious Swedes dismantle France
Last night, while most of the country turned their attentions to the dirge in Donetsk, the competitors and spectators lined up for a killing in Kiev.
In the yellow corner, the team who hang most of their hopes on a belligerent maverick, a man who when asked who he thought would win the tournament, replied that he was going on holiday. In so many words. In the blue corner, a team unbeaten in 23 games (the longest run in international football), young and exciting, groomed by their coach to play in the right way.
Yup, France lost. In fact, they were battered.
In a game where they were expected to showcase their strengths, the French actually broadcasted their weaknesses across Europe; namely a shaky defence, a style easy to contain, and a misfiring frontman.
They displayed the first of these flaws after ten minutes, Philippe Mexes falling over attempting an aerial clearance, allowing PSV striker Ola Toivonen a clear run on goal. The best he could do was hitting the outside of the post from a ridiculously tight angle. Well done, Hugo Lloris.
This turned out to be the standout moment in a half characterised by sloppy passing and sloppier shooting.
Roll on the second half, where the impressive Christian Wilhelmsson came on for Sweden (seriously, what does this guy have to do to get started?). Apart from Benzema’s closest sight of goal, a curling shot just wide, Les Bleus were looking shaky. The Swedes’ willingness to put their bodies on the line had them looking uncertain at best.
Then came The Moment.
Winning the ball in midfield, the ball broke to Kim Kallstrom, who spread it wide to Sebastian Larsson. He did what he does best and popped a cross to a deep lying Ibrahimovic. Now, most strikers would’ve taken a touch given that much time and space.
His scissor kick volley into the bottom corner of the net will probably be voted goal of the tournament and was a moment of unmistakable genius. And it’s still not his greatest goal yet. That honour goes to…
This seemed to be what the Swedes were waiting for. Ibrahimovic became the graceful pillar of strength they needed to build their attacks on, typified with the most casual of passes playing in an unmarked Wilhelmsson, who forced Lloris to beat his shot away. And the French keeper was tested yet again from the resulting corner; Olof Mellberg denied making it two in two after being left unmarked.
Laurent Blanc’s men were sinking without trace, a ban for Philippe Mexes and a limping Samir Nasri adding insult to injury.
The cherry on the top came in stoppage time, a shocking volley from substitute Samuel Holmen striking the post, the rebound landing straight on Sebastian Larsson’s foot and rocketing into the roof of the net.
Sweden end this tournament on a high, finally playing the football they intended to in the last game after already being eliminated. Too little, too late.
France, on the other hand, have to deal with the loss of their invulnerability, and the shadow of a terrible performance looming over them, before their quarter-final meeting with the European and World Champions.