Euro 2012: Sweden Bows out in Style

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Euro 2012: Sweden Bows out in Style
Ian Walton/Getty Images

For Sweden there was nothing but pride to play for against France having been eliminated after successive defeats in their first two group games. France, on the other hand, had an opportunity to win Group D and avoid a quarterfinal matchup with the defending European and World Champions Spain.

The Swedes had put on entertaining, but inconsistent, displays against Ukraine and England. A tendency to concede goals after scoring their own ultimately crippled their efforts to advance to the latter rounds of Euro 2012.

The absence of Daniel Majstorović, the 35-year old Celtic defender, a bedrock on the back line with Olof Mellberg, was sorely felt. The lead over Ukraine in the critical opening game of the group lasted all of three minutes. Over England it was five minutes before Theo Walcott equalized, then setting up Danny Wellbeck's spectacular back heeled winner with 12 minutes to go.  

Against the French, Sweden's defense wasn't immune from a few gaffes that led, most notably, to an early Franck Ribery chance. However, as the game proceeded Sweden established a firm possession advantage and limited French forays to only a few dangerous shots from distance.

Kim Källström and Anders Svensson controlled the tempo in the midfield while Zlatan Ibrahimović played behind Ola Toivonen at the top of the Blågult 4-4-1-1 formation. Erik Hamren's men were fluid, confident and organized in a way that the national manager dreamed they could be when he went about rejuvenating the program after Sweden failed to qualify for the last World Cup.

The passing, combination play and overlapping runs were all there to the delight of a considerable Swedish contingent in Kiev. Emir Bajrami's inclusion in the starting XI and Christian Wilhelmsson as a second half sub were particularly lively revelations for Sweden.  

Justifiably, Sweden took the lead nine minutes after the halftime break with the prettiest goal of the tournament thus far. Mellberg's perfectly timed tackle sprung a Swedish counter at midfield. The ball was fed out to Sebastian Larsson on the right wing who's lofty cross found Ibrahimović at the top of the box.  

What Zlatan did next—a scissor-kicked, one-time volley rifled into the French net—should be included in the pantheon of the best European championship goals. It was an unspeakably skillful and creative move from a man tapping into the vast wealth of his talents.

Larsson capitalized on another Swedish attack late in the proceedings to finish off the disinterested French. Samuel Hollmen's volley came off the crossbar before Larsson hammered a right-footed shot into the roof of the net, capping a satisfying 2-0 victory and ending France's 23-match unbeaten run.  

With the opening fixtures of World Cup qualification just a few months away the positive signs are present that Sweden's new approach can bear attractive, winning football. The road to 2014 will not be a simple task. The Swedes were grouped with fellow Euro 2012 participants Germany and Ireland along with Austria, Kazakhstan and the Faroe Islands.

For now a bittersweet summer vacation will be nagged by "what if" questions. What if the Swedes hadn't allowed Andriy Shevchenko to single-handedly turn around the first game? What if Majstorović was healthy, would they have looked so vulnerable at the back against the English? What if Hamrén had selected John Guidetti in the squad, would an extra attacking option have been the difference?

Those Swedish fans who camped on an island on the Dnieper river in Kiev will be home bound, as are the fans of the eight other eliminated sides. But the Swedes can at least claim the only final game win amongst the group and be proud of the stylish performance their national squad produced at these European championships. 

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