In spite of winning titles with every team he plays for, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has earned the reputation of being a player that goes missing during big matches. When the pressure is off is when he seems to shine brightest, yesterday was another example of this. Following Sweden's elimination from Euro 2012 following consecutive defeats at the hands of Ukraine and England, Zlatan lifted Sweden to victory over France in a game that hand nothing at stake other than pride.
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France's manager Laurent Blanc opted to start Yann M'Vila and Hatem Ben Arfa in place of the previously effective Yohan Cabaye and Jeremy Menez. While the duo turned in satisfactory performances, neither were able to give France the spark they needed in this match. Karim Benzema played in a deeper role that did not resemble his traditional striker position that he plays so expertly with Real Madrid. Throughout the match the French struggled to break through the formidable defense that the Swedes provided.
That defense was led by the intimidating, bearded Olof Mellberg who turned in a great defensive performance for Sweden. He was the focal point of the Swedish defense and he nearly got on the goal sheet, forcing a save from French captain Hugo Lloris. Martin Olsson effectively shut down Mathieu Debuchy, whose marauding runs up the flank had caused many problems for England and Ukraine. The Swedish defense earned their shutout through hard work, excellent positioning, and timely clearances.
Christian Wilhelmsson entered the match at halftime, in place of Emir Bajrami, and his introduction signaled the beginning of the Swedish dominance of the second half. Wilhelmsson along with Martin Olsson combined to make French full back Mathieu Debuchy appear tame, a difficult feat considering he had been heralded as one of the tournament's revelations. One can't help but think what might have been if Wilhelmsson had been started in the previous two matches.
Zlatan's moment of brilliance came in the 54th minute off a cross from Sebastian Larsson. After sizing up the attempt, Zlatan leapt into the air and unleashed a furious side volley that Hugo Lloris was helpless to stop. Better than Balotelli's overhead kick, more spectacular than Captain Kuba's wonderstrike, Zlatan had again proved why he is considered one of the best players in the world.
France's efforts to come back and equalize were repeatedly wasted due to inaccurate finishing, with Ribery, Nasri, and substitute Olivier Giroud all missing opportunities. Finally in the 90th minute, Sweden put the game beyond doubt thanks to Sebastian Larsson. Larsson blasted in Samuel Holmen's rebound off the crossbar that came off a beautiful cross from Wilhelmsson. The impressive display allowed Sweden to leave Ukraine with their pride intact.
France now have to regroup in time to face the reigning champions Spain in their quarterfinal matchup. France finished in second place in Group D following the loss. Can Laurent Blanc rally his squad and turn in the performance that will be necessary to defeat Spain? Will the old demons in the French squad stir up again in time to sabotage France's campaign?