France reaches Euro 2012 quarters despite 2-0 loss
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- France was outplayed, outfought and outscored, and that was against a team with nothing to play for.
With world champion Spain now waiting in the quarterfinals of the European Championship, things better improve quickly for the French to stand a chance of going any further.
France limped into the knockout round of Euro 2012 despite a 2-0 loss to Sweden in their final group game, showing just how much the team still needs to improve to be true contenders in the tournament. The French finished second in Group D after England beat Ukraine 1-0, and will face Spain on Saturday in the quarterfinals.
"You have to be optimistic to think that we can beat Spain, but it's hard right now to imagine that we can. We have to do better on Saturday," France coach Laurent Blanc said. "We wanted to finish top of the group but couldn't manage it, so we have to deal with that."
France's 23-game unbeaten streak came to a crashing end as the already-eliminated Swedes exposed frailties in the back four and neutralized the dual attacking threat of Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery.
The Swedes dominated proceedings for much of the game and Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke the deadlock with a piece of artistry in the 54th minute, sending a spectacular volley past helpless goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Sweden had plenty of chances to add a second before Sebastian Larsson finally did in injury time to secure the team's first points of the tournament.
"We really wanted to win this game for the fans, their support has been fantastic," Ibrahimovic said. "We wanted to finish this strongly for them."
Perhaps France can still do the same, but the team has big problems to solve in both defense and attack.
"We were too average in too many areas to hope to win this match," Blanc said. "The Swedish team played with all their hearts, they were better prepared than us. They had a player in their ranks (Ibrahimovic) who made the difference. If you analyze the game, we were in trouble for most of it.
"We're very disappointed with how we played. The main thing is that we've qualified."
England finished with seven points, while France had four and Ukraine and Sweden bowed out with three each.
France looked lackluster throughout much of the game and lacked clinical finishing when it did threaten the Swedish goal.
Substitute Jeremy Menez had France's best chance to equalize when he broke into the area in the 81st minute but his low shot was stopped by goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson's leg. From the resulting corner, Olivier Giroud headed just wide.
Benzema was largely ineffective again and remained scoreless at the tournament. Ribery had France's best chance in the first half when the ball fell to him on the left edge of the area but his shot was parried by Isaksson.
Instead, it was Ibrahimovic who stole the show with another spectacular goal to add to his resume. The tall AC Milan striker met Larsson's cross from the left and put himself nearly sideways in the air before striking the ball perfectly past Lloris.
"It was a perfect cross from Seb," Ibrahimovic said. "The whole team played a fantastic game today."
Lloris then single-handedly kept France in the game over the next few minutes as Sweden kept pressing, making point-blank saves to deny Christian Wilhelmsson and Olof Mellberg.
Larsson finally added the second by emphatically volleying a rebound into an empty net, giving the large contingent of Swedish fans a reason to celebrate.
"It's mixed emotions right now," Sweden coach Erik Hamren said. "We should be happy with the victory and the performance. ... But at the same time, there's a sense of sadness in us all because we would have wanted to stick around a bit longer."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)