Previews: England's Group D Opponents

Do France deserve their favourites tag in Group D? Will Sweden surprise us with attacking football? Can the hosts cause a shock? Matt Stanger previews England's opponents...

Last Updated: 07/06/12 at 10:03 Post Comment

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France are England's biggest threat in Group D after overcoming the problems of World Cup 2010 under new manager Laurent Blanc.

The former Bordeaux boss' reign didn't begin in the most convincing fashion, however, with the team losing its first Euro 2012 qualifier 1-0 at home to Belarus. This was followed by a hard-fought 2-0 victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo, and a resolute display buoyed the team in their quest to top the group.

They managed their aim, just, finishing a point ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina with that first-match defeat their solitary loss of the campaign.

Despite scoring only 15 goals in the ten qualifying fixtures, France seem to have solved their goal-scoring problems in recent friendlies. The team are unbeaten in 20 matches and the last four results, including a 2-1 victory over Germany in Bremen, have yielded an average of almost three goals a game for Les Bleus.

In particular, the 4-0 win against Estonia on June 5 served as a timely confidence boost ahead of the opening group match against England. With Karim Benzema grabbing a brace - one a wonderful strike - and Franck Ribery also getting in on the act, it appears that the big-name players who have underperformed so often for France in the recent past are peaking at the right stage to make an impact in Poland and Ukraine. Indeed, the consistency of Blanc's team selection, and the adaptability of his fluid 4-2-3-1 system, which can readily be compressed into 4-3-2-1, has primed a rejuvenated team to take Group D by storm.

Along with Ribery, Benzema and Samir Nasri, Blanc possesses an array of attacking options on the bench if change is required. Olivier Giroud, top scorer for Montpellier in the club's Ligue 1 success this season, came on in the warm-up game with Iceland to assist two goals in an inspiring comeback. Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa offer pace and trickery in the two wide berths and Marvin Martin, who has been earmarked by Lille as a replacement for Eden Hazard, is a delightfully creative player capable of unlocking even the most dogged defences.

It is a comfortable position for Blanc to find himself, but the manager will be aware that the team also have evident weak spots.

The centre-back pairing of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami has looked vulnerable at times and Andy Carroll's physical presence on June 11 is likely to cause concern. Even more worrying is the injuries to defensive midfielders Yann M'Vila, who is almost definitely out of the first game, and Alou Diarra, whose fitness is being monitored ahead of the clash in Donetsk. When France faced Iceland with neither player starting, they found themselves 2-0 down after 34 minutes. Should the duo miss the England tie, Ashley Young may be able to exploit the space in front of the back-line.

There is talent throughout the team, though, and the new-found harmony bodes well for their chances. Relatively unknown stars such as right-back Mathieu Debuchy, who is standing in for the injured Bacary Sagna, and PSG's exciting winger Menez are tipped to make an impression in their first international tournament. Of course, it could end catastrophically as it has done in the past, but that feels unlikely on this occasion given France's resilient nature under Blanc.

*****

We already know that England's second group match against Sweden will undoubtedly end in a draw, but it's worth looking at Erik Hamren's team to see what can be expected from them at the Euros.

England recorded their first win against Sweden since 1968 in a 1-0 victory at Wembley in November, and should they overcome their Group D rivals in Poland and Ukraine it will probably be by a similar scoreline.

This is the first tournament in 18 years where Sweden won't be led by Lars Lagerback. But while the former coach had an impressive qualifying record (he managed Sweden at five international tournaments) the team's hermetic, cautious approach had become a bore.

Change has been instigated by Hamren since the coach's appointment in 2009 and, in a relatively short space of time, Sweden have developed their attacking game into a more expansive approach. Only Germany and Holland - their group rivals - outscored them in qualifying as they averaged more than three goals a game. The team lost only two of ten preliminary matches and beat Holland 3-2 in the final fixture to ensure qualification as the best runner-up.

With former Aston Villa striker Marcus Allback as his assistant, Hamren has encouraged the team to express themselves and he was rewarded by 14 different goalscorers in qualifying. This evident goal threat throughout the starting line-up is a huge plus point, as rather than being forced to play Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a target man, the coach can utilise his star player's greatest strengths in a deeper role.

In a 4-2-3-1 system, Ibrahimovic fulfills a creative role as the centre of the '3' behind Johan Elmander in attack. It's a similar position to where he was deployed by AC Milan against Arsenal in the Champions League to such devastating effect and he will again be pulling the strings at the heart of Sweden's team.

While Ibrahimovic occupies a withdrawn role, Sweden can be expected to press purposefully down the wings. Martin Olsson and Mikael Lustig are two full-backs who love to get forward and will readily support Ola Toivonen and Sebastian Larsson in advanced areas.

If there's one area where Sweden are weak, however, it is most likely to be central midfield where Anders Svensson - who must be pushing 50 - continues to partner Kim Kallstrom. Although the duo are largely excellent in possession - which is an advantage against an England team who seem happy to cede time on the ball - their best days are behind them. If Steven Gerrard and Ashley Young can play with tempo in the middle, they should be causing problems in the final third.

After watching Daniel Majstorovic play for Celtic, it seems odd to describe his absence through injury as a loss, but the centre-back has been dependable for his country and played in nine of the ten qualifiers. The 35-year-old is incredibly unfortunate to miss out, and will be replaced by either Andreas Granqvist, formerly of Wigan, or West Brom's Jonas Olsson.

Two other players England should be wary of are Rasmus Elm and Pontus Wernbloom. Neither is expected to start in Poland and Ukraine, but they are valuable game-changing options from the bench. We are likely to see Elm's introduction if Sweden go behind, and the technically gifted attacking midfielder has proven his goal-scoring credentials at AZ Alkmaar.

Wernbloom, on the other hand, is a more combative midfielder who may be brought on to help the team see out a winning scoreline. "My main job is to break the other team's attacks," said the CSKA Moscow player after scoring the winner for his new club against Real Madrid in the Champions League this season. After Jose Mourinho described the 25-year-old as being "tougher than Chuck Norris", England should be wary of the consequences of going behind.

*****

Despite being on home territory, few expect Ukraine to progress from Group D ahead of England or France. Indeed they are arguably weaker than when they beat England 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier in October 2009, having been starved of competitive football for the past two years.

It's perhaps rather unjust that two of the 16 nations participating this summer qualified automatically as hosts - especially when Ukraine have failed to reach the finals in four previous attempts - but they could turn out to be the biggest losers in this scenario.

Oleg Blokhin, who took the team to the World Cup quarter finals in 2006, was re-appointed coach in April 2011 and proceeded to experiment with first XI combinations in what appeared to be an homage to Diego Maradona's reign as Argentina manager. In total, 49 players have been selected in the past 12 months as the team meandered through a series of friendlies.

In the early stages, Blokhin's return didn't go to plan. A 4-1 thrashing against France last June was followed by defeats to Sweden and Uruguay, before the lowest point of the coach's current tenure: a 4-0 defeat to Czech Republic.

Blokhin shuffled his pack again and this time it produced results. Five wins plus an entertaining 3-3 draw against Germany came in the next six matches, with 17 goals scored along the way. However, defeats to Austria and Turkey in the final two warm-up games indicate that Ukraine still have worrying frailties and, despite the steady improvement in the team's structure, Blokhin has work to do. Optimism has been reared, though, by the rise of wing sensations Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.

Both 22, the pair have established themselves as Ukraine's main attacking threats ahead of the Euros. Quick, skillful and direct, they provide the perfect balance in Blokhin's flat 4-4-2 formation and Yarmolenko in particular will stretch England on June 19.

At 6'2" the left-winger is an imposing presence, possessing excellent technique and a fierce shot. The main concern for Roy Hodgson's team is the Dynamo Kiev star's pace, and Glen Johnson will have to be careful he isn't caught out of position when supporting James Milner down the right. With 30 goals in 84 matches for Dynamo, Yarmolenko isn't an opponent to be taken lightly.

As I mentioned here, England face another test in tenacious 22-year-old Yaroslav Rakitsky. A tireless presence in the Ukraine team, the Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder will be a thorn in the side for England with his relentless harrying and strong challenges. Owing to former Barcelona defender Dymytro Chrgynsky's absence - which comes as a major blow to the hosts - it's likely that Rakitsky will drop into the centre of defence to partner club teammate Oleksandr Kucher or Bayern Munich's Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. Considering all three centre-back options are at least two inches shorter than Andy Carroll, the England striker should find some success in aerial duels.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a preview without a nod to Ukraine's greatest ever player, Andriy Shevchenko. Now 35, the striker's powers have been on the wane since his ill-fated £30million move to Chelsea in 2006. However, in what will be the former AC Milan forward's swansong, England will need to avoid being sucker-punched by the fairytale yarn in the final group game.

There has been talk of unrest in the Ukraine camp and, with the eyes of the football world upon them this month, they will be hoping to avoid controversy. The recent focus on the possibility of racist abuse has brought a previous extraordinary, sickening outburst from Blokhin to mind.

"The more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation," said the manager in 2006, during his last spell in charge. "Let them learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some zumba-bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League."

Hopefully Blokhin has been taught the error of his ways; an early exit in the group stage should keep him quiet.

Matt Stanger - chat to him on the Twitter.

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