Donetsk, June 18
France has everything to gain by beating a Sweden team which is playing only for pride in their last European Championship group match on Tuesday.
The match represents the possible dawn of a new era for France — which has not reached a tournament quarterfinal since the 2006 World Cup — and the end of the road for some of Sweden’s veterans.
If France manages to keep first place in Group D it will avoid a potential encounter with defending champion Spain in the last eight, so long as the improving Spaniards finish ahead of Group C rivals Croatia and Italy.
"It would be great to avoid Spain in the next round," France midfielder Yohan Cabaye said. "We’ll have to give everything against Sweden so that we win and stay in first place."
France is brimming with confidence after its stylish 2-0 win over Ukraine, with Cabaye scoring the second goal. A victory over Sweden would consolidate its position as one of the tournament’s dangerous outsiders.
"We’ll be judged at the end of the Euro, but we’re happy to have found our form again," France left back Gael Clichy said. He’s wary of Sweden, which poses a threat despite already being eliminated. "They have less pressure, I’d say. Players always want to do well for their country."
After two narrow defeats to Ukraine and England, the Sweden players are desperate to give their fans something to cheer about.
"We’ll be playing for our honor. We want to take some points home with us," Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic said. "To motivate ourselves for the France game isn’t a problem. We have one more match do something good. France has to win, we’ll just go out and play."
Although the 30-year-old Ibrahimovic has confirmed that he will continue to play for Sweden, the 34-year-old defender Olof Mellberg and 35-year-old midfielder Anders Svensson are representing their country for the last time in a tournament.
They have a combined 245 caps for Sweden, while 30-year-old goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson has 95 caps. The only France player that even comes close is midfielder Florent Malouda, who has 78 caps. Winger Franck Ribery has 62, but nobody else in the French squad has more than 50 caps.
Mellberg played every minute in his previous five tournaments, and was the captain in three of them. He also been ever present in this campaign, scoring against England, and coach Erik Hamren will want to give him a fitting send off.
Hamren has to give fringe players a game to test their ability ahead of World Cup qualifying, but must still field a team competitive enough to take on the French.
Regardless of the lineup, he does not expect his players to ease up — even if there is nothing at stake. "If you’re a winner, if you’re a really, really good player with an attitude, then you find the motivation yourself," Hamren said. "I don’t think I’ll have to motivate them that much."
France midfielder Yann M’Vila hopes that Ibrahimovic — Italy’s Serie A top scorer with 28 goals for AC Milan — is one of the players Hamren decides to rest.
"Zlatan is one of the best players in the world," M’Vila said. "If he doesn’t play, that’s good for us, like when Wayne Rooney didn’t play for England."
France coach Laurent Blanc has yet to decide on his best team, but increasing competition for places has proved successful so far.
Winger Jeremy Menez scored France’s opening goal against Ukraine after replacing Malouda in the lineup, while Clichy impressed after taking Patrice Evra’s place at left back.
"We gave Gael his chance and he played well," Blanc said. "It’s a question of choice, it depends how the opposition plays."