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Donetsk, Ukraine: France have everything to gain by beating a Sweden team which is playing only for pride in their last European Championship group match today.
The match represents the possible dawn of a new era for France – who have not reached a tournament quarter-final since the 2006 World Cup – and the end of the road for some of Sweden’s veterans.
If France manages to keep first place in Group D it will avoid a potential encounter with defending champion Spain in the last eight, so long as the improving Spaniards finish ahead of Group C rivals Croatia and Italy.
“It would be great to avoid Spain in the next round,” France midfielder Yohan Cabaye said. “We’ll have to give everything against Sweden so that we win and stay in first place.”
France are brimming with confidence after their stylish 2-0 win over Ukraine, with Cabaye scoring the second goal. A victory over Sweden would consolidate their position as one of the tournament’s dangerous outsiders.
“We’ll be judged at the end of the Euro, but we’re happy to have found our form again,” France left back Gael Clichy said. He’s wary of Sweden, which poses a threat despite already being eliminated. “They have less pressure, I’d say. Players always want to do well for their country.”
After two narrow defeats to Ukraine and England, the Sweden players are desperate to give their fans something to cheer about.
“We’ll be playing for our honour. We want to take some points home with us,” Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic said.
Although the 30-year-old Ibrahimovic has confirmed that he will continue to play for Sweden, the 34-year-old defe-nder Olof Mellberg and 35-year-old midfielder Anders Svensson are representing their country for the last time in a tournament.
They have a combined 245 caps for Sweden, while 30-year-old goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson has 95 caps. The only France player that even comes close is midfielder Florent Malouda, who has 78 caps. Winger Franck Ribery has 62, but nobody else in the French squad has more than 50 caps.
Mellberg played every minute in his previous five tournaments, and was the captain in three of them.
Coach Erik Hamren has to give fringe players a game to test their ability ahead of World Cup qualifying, but must still field a team competitive enough to take on the French.
Regardless of the line-up, he does not expect his players to ease up-even if there is nothing at stake.
“If you’re a winner, if you’re a really, really good player with an attitude, then you find the motivation yourself,” Hamren said. “I don’t think I’ll have to motivate them that much.”
France midfielder Yann M’Vila hopes that Ibrahimovic – Italy’s Serie A top scorer with 28 goals for AC Milan – is one of the players Hamren decides to rest.
France coach Laurent Blanc has yet to decide on his best team, but increasing competition for places has proved successful so far. – Sapa-AP