Euro 2016: Sweden aiming to banish memories of 2012 flop
Erik Hamren’s side intent on a better show – starting with a win over Ireland
Sweden manager Erik Hamren: “One victory might be enough, so the winner between us and Ireland is important. It’s a key game.” Photo: Getty Images
For four long years Erik Hamren and Sweden have been waiting for a chance to redeem themselves after a disastrous Euro 2012. Unfortunately for them, their first chance to do so is in their opening Euro 2016 game against a Republic of Ireland side seeking to do exactly the same thing.
Few Irish fans will need reminding that their side was first to be mathematically knocked out of Euro 2012, but, after throwing away the lead against both Ukraine and England, the Swedes weren’t far behind in packing their bags.
A victory in the final group game against France notwithstanding, it was a lame performance by a team featuring Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The similarities with the Irish aren’t limited to that early exit. Both missed the subsequent World Cup in Brazil, and neither managed to set their Euro qualification campaigns alight.
And it’s probably fair to say that both countries would be planning a summer at home if the competition hadn’t been expanded to 24 teams. But both eventually performed well enough in their two-legged play-offs to finally put redemption within their grasp.
For Hamren, it is his last chance to make a mark after an underwhelming six years at the helm. His term will effectively come to an end when the Swedes are knocked out. With his successor Jan Andersson already chosen, he knows what his side have to do if they are to make an impact.
“We have to lift ourselves a lot. If you look at the playoff against Denmark, we have to reach at least that level at the Euros,” he told me recently at the offices of the Swedish FA.
Brought to replace the careful, pragmatic Lars Lagerback who now manages Iceland, Hamren’s side are more expansive now than under his predecessor, but a lot more leaky at the back.
Sensitive to criticism, Hamren has often been perplexed by some of the flak he has received for his inability to marshal the defence. But he says he has learned the lessons of Euro 2012, where setpieces proved to be the undoing of the Swedes.
“For me the defence has always been important. It’s not like we just put it to one side,” he explains, “but you have to be able to handle both ends of it. We’re one of the lowest-ranked teams in the Euros. We’re meeting teams that are better than us on paper so we might have to defend ourselves more.”
That may be particularly true of the Italy and Belgium games, but Hamren is under no illusions about the importance of the Ireland match.
He is not taking too much from Sweden’s victory in Dublin during the last World Cup qualifying campaign either.
“It’s always a good feeling to have beaten them before, but we have a different team now,” he says, and he’s right.
With Sweden’s Under-21 side having won last summer’s European Championship, Hamren has had plenty of new blood to bring into the squad, such as ex-Celtic striker John Guidetti (now at Celta Vigo) and midfielders Oscar Hiljemark and Oscar Lewicki.
He has also called up 27-year-old Norrkoping striker Emir Kujovic, who was the top scorer in the Allsvenskan in 2015 as his unfancied side won the Swedish title.
Former Malmo midfielder Emil Forsberg has also blossomed in the national team.
An old-fashioned winger, his performances in the Champions League for Malmo won him a lucrative move to Red Bull Leipzig, who have recently been promoted to the Bundesliga in Germany.
But for all the new blood, Hamren will find himself once again dependent on Sweden’s evergreen captain and record international goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The 34-year-old talisman may have scored over half of Sweden’s goals in qualifying but Hamren rejects the notion they are a one-man team.
“I laugh at that, of course. I can understand it because he’s really important to us, but in that case there’s a lot of one-man teams in the world. Ronaldo for Portugal and Real, Messi for Argentina and Barcelona and so on. Yes, he’s a really important player, he’s the match winner, he’s the captain, our only world-class player.
“But we need to be a unit, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful, we have a world-class player taking huge responsibility for the team, all credit to Zlatan for that, but also a team taking responsibility for the world-class player.”
Hamren is unlikely to deviate from the tactics that got his side to France, so Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane can start preparing for a four-four-two formation with Marcus Berg given the task of running to open up space for Ibrahimovic up front.
Central midfieldAndreas GranqvistVictor Nilsson
Ahead of one of them, Emil Forsberg will be given a role on the wing, allowing him to cut in and shoot off his right foot.
The ageing Kim Källström will probably start in central midfield alongside Albin Ekdal, if the latter recovers from a deep wound in his back sustained in a nightclub fall while celebrating SV Hamburg’s retention of their Bundesliga status.
Should either of them fall out of contention, the aforementioned Hiljemark and Lewicki will be ready to take charge, with the combative Pontus Wernbloom waiting in the wings.
It’s a game that both Sweden and Ireland realistically must win if they are to have a chance of going further than either nation managed at Euro 2012, and with Hamren due to turn 59 on June 27th after the group stage has ended, I ask where he will be celebrating his birthday.
“In France,” he says with a broad smile. “My dream is to celebrate it in France.”