Sweden Euro 2012 Focus – Defence Hamren’s only concern

Group D of Euro 2012 is shaping up to be one of the most idiosyncratic before a ball is even kicked. The respective coaches of France and Ukraine have been busy playing down their own chances and England have been in disarray since Fabio Capello quit in February – a situation only exacerbated by the on-going John Terry-Roy Hodgson-Rio Ferdinand affair. So where does that leave Sweden?

The BBC reported Laurent Blanc as claiming France are no longer a “major power” of world football, while his Ukraine equivalent, Oleg Blokhin, derided both his strikers and his defenders, according to the Daily Mail. England’s approach to the tournament has been dogged by injury and controversy but for Sweden, the build-up to their opening fixture with the co-hosts Ukraine has been positively serene. If Blanc and Blokhin are to be believed, and if England’s uncertain last few weeks is translated onto the field, Sweden could be the surprise favourites to escape the group.

Much will rest on the shoulders of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as it ever does. Former Sweden international Joachim Bjorklund went so far as to suggest in the Daily Record that if the Milan striker performs, Sweden could be the surprise package of the entire competition. Ibrahimovic was certainly at his best last season, netting 35 goals in 44 games, and the free role he will take in Erik Hamren’s line-up should enable the 30-year-old to impose himself on proceedings a great deal. Indeed, Bjorklund added that he was fully confident in Sweden’s attacking players, but had concerns about the state of the side further back.

Perhaps Bjorklund’s worries are borne of being a centre-back himself, naturally inclined to examine that defensive third in more detail than anywhere else on the pitch, yet there is much truth to Bjorklund’s concerns. The ex-Rangers player pointed to Daniel Majstorovic’s injury, Mikael Lustig’s lack of playing time and Olof Melberg’s age as reasons to be less than cheerful. But Hamren can call on West Bromwich Albion’s Jonas Olsson, who the Daily Mail report has been linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur on the back of an “impressive” season. Will Olsson et al be enough to stop the might of the French attack? Only time will tell.

Before dealing with Blanc’s former World Cup winners Sweden must first take on Ukraine on Monday and England on Friday. Having been drawn in the fourth of four groups Sweden and co have had the opportunity to survey all the competition before them, with Russia and Croatia the standouts thus far. Neither would be considered amongst the favourites to take the tournament even after wins of 4-1 and 3-1 respectively, perhaps giving Sweden further encouragement. The Scandinavians would not be thought of as likely contenders for the trophy but a good start against Ukraine, in the manner of Russia against the Czech Republic or Croatia against the Republic of Ireland, could catapult Sweden into the unlikely role of dark horses to usurp Spain as the champions of Europe.

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