Ukraine, Jun16: Having ended a six-year wait for a win at a major tournament by beating co-host Ukraine 2-0, France's players might be forgiven for feeling euphoric before their final European Championship group game against Sweden.
But coach Laurent Blanc is not looking too far ahead, and has dismissed any talk about finishing top of Group D to avoid a potential clash with defending champion Spain in the quarterfinals.
“I had a cold beer after the game,” Blanc said Saturday. “Let's not lose sight of things. We've reached one of our objectives, which was to win a game in a major competition, but it will get harder now.”
France only needs to draw against Sweden next Tuesday to reach a tournament last eight for the first time since the 2006 World Cup. Blanc is not taking the Swedes lightly—even though they are already eliminated from Euro 2012 after losing both games.
“We're taking our preparations very seriously and with the utmost respect for them. It's never easy against the Swedes, they're very physical,” Blanc said. “We'd be preparing the same way whether Sweden had won or drawn. We'll play to win, we're not going to think about easing up at all.”
Friday's storm-delayed win was France's first at a competition since the 2006 World Cup semifinal against Portugal.
The manner in which France played, particularly during a superb spell in the second half when both goals came in quick succession, confirmed Blanc's team as a dangerous outsider at Euro 2012.
“I don't know if it's our most complete game, but we're not unbeaten in 23 games for nothing,” Blanc said. “This gives us a lot of confidence.”
France and England have four points each, but France is the slight favorite to win the group as it has a better goal difference.
This raises the prospect of avoiding defending champion Spain. If Spain wins Group C, it faces the second team in Group D.
“We're not in a position to make calculations,” Blanc said, although midfielder Yann M'Vila admits it is on the players' minds.
“A little bit, but you shouldn't start working things out,” he said. “Whether we end up playing against Spain or not, we'll have to perform. The win against Ukraine can be a turning point for us in the competition. Hopefully we'll scare a few teams.”
Even if France does play Spain, left back Gael Clichy thinks the players will not be overawed.
“Without being pretentious or arrogant we have qualities of our own and we've shown that in the last 20 games or so,” he said. “Croatia and Italy aren't small nations either.”
Clichy expects the Swedes to be fired up because they have national pride at stake after losing to Ukraine and England.
“They have less pressure, I'd say. They're out, but playing without the hand brake on is always easier, so we're wary of them,” he said. “If we can win in style, that's perfect, but the objective is to get out of the group.”
Blanc has selection headaches to contend with before the Sweden game—but they are welcome ones.
The changes he made against Ukraine were fully justified, with Clichy excelling in an attack-minded role in place of former captain Patrice Evra, and Jeremy Menez giving offering extra pace and movement with his foraging runs from right wing.
Menez fluffed two good chances, but opened the scoring after switching the ball from his right foot to his left and drilling into the bottom corner.
“Jeremy's starting to find his feet, but he's only got 14 caps,” Blanc said. “Talented players are very annoying, especially when they miss chances. Others never annoy you, yet they don't have the talent.”
Blanc is prepared to make changes again, underlining how he has increased competition for places and removed any kind of comfort zone.
“If I think there are players who can bring something to the team against Sweden, I will do exactly the same thing,” he said. “That's what the players must understand. The collective is more important than anything.”
Midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who scored France's second goal, felt a pinch behind his thigh in the second half and was replaced by M'Vila.
“I'm not overly worried, but you have to be careful with muscle problems,” Blanc said. “Yohan's an intelligent lad and he knew he shouldn't push things.”