French look to end six years of group hell


France are looking to end a six year hiatus of failing to qualify for the knockout stages of a major finals here on Tuesday and get the result they need against already eliminated Sweden in their Euro 2012 Group D match.
The signs are positive for Laurent Blanc’s side that they will both achieve their goal and extend their unbeaten run to 24 matches against what could be a demoralised Swedish side, who are pointless after two successive defeats.
The French could even lose and go through should England, who they lead on goal difference in the group with both on four points, beat co-hosts Ukraine in Donetsk.
However, under Blanc’s wise and steady guidance – in comparison to the chaotic and rollercoaster ride under predecessor Raymond Domenech – this is not a concept they would entertain.
They envisage victory and topping the group to set up a quarter-final against the runners-up of Group C, finishing runners-up would more than likely see them entertaining the unappetising prospect of defending champions Spain in the last eight.
Blanc, a member of the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winning sides though he missed the former match because he was suspended, said getting the monkey off their backs of winning their first game at a finals in six years in Friday’s 2-0 win over co-hosts Ukraine would do their confidence no end of good.
“Every victory is good for confidence, both on a collective and an individual level,” he said at Saturday’s press conference.
“We know just how hard it is to win a match at a major tournament, so the fact we played well and looked secure at the back is a good thing. It’ll give us courage and a lot of confidence.”
However, Blanc said there was no question of slipping into a mindset that the game was already won and their place in the last eight assured – something the Russians seemed to have been fatally affected by in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Greeks.
“We still need something from the third game,” he said.
“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. Let’s stay humble. We played well yesterday (Friday) and we beat Ukraine. That’s good, but it won’t change the way we prepare for the Sweden match.”
Blanc’s only worry appears to be with one of the goalscorers from the Ukraine game, Yohan Cabaye, who complained about a twinge at the back of his thigh and was taken off as a precaution in the second-half.
“I am not worried but we have to be aware of it,” said Blanc, whose selection of the other goalscorer Jeremy Menez in preference to Florent Malouda proved an inspired one.
“He had felt a little twinge behind his thigh in training, and he felt it again during the match. He then thought it best not to push his luck.”
While Sweden may not have a place in the last eight to fight for there will be a desire to at least bow out with a famous scalp not least for some of the ageing veterans such as centreback Olof Mellberg, who is likely to retire from the national side after the finals.
Certainly if the Swedes show the same spirit and not a little skill as they did in the 3-2 loss to England then the French could be in for a real battle.
The Scandinavians’ morale will have been given a timely boost when their star player Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced on Sunday he would not be retiring form international football despite the early exit.
“Absolutely. My future is with the national side,” said Ibrahimovic, who has scored in three successive Euros.