France know they cannot repeat their desperate display against Sweden if they are to have a chance against the defending champions in the quarter-finals
To regress just before a knockout game against the defending champions is rank bad timing. Unfortunately for France, much of the steady work they have built up over the past couple of years unravelled against Sweden. Performance-wise, in isolation this 90 minutes was really no better than any of the dross they served up two years ago in South Africa.
This was a Homer Simpson moment for France. Not only did they manage to find a banana skin, they more or less ate the banana and tossed the skin underneath their feet all by themselves. They were left slapping heads into their hands as they ended up paired against Spain instead of Italy in the quarter-finals. Sweden deserved their moment to savour at a tournament in which they were good value on the entertainment front, but France knew as they trooped off the pitch that they had passed up an excellent opportunity to win Group D and avoid you-know-who.
Gaël Clichy was asked afterwards how France might go about beating Spain and he summed it up well enough: "By playing differently to this." And how. Clichy suggested the heat and fatigue might have been the cause of the problem. Alou Diarra wondered if they were a bit too relaxed. Not that anyone was seeking excuses. The French players were honest enough to face up to a very off night. "If we want to do anything in this competition, we can't play like that again," concluded Karim Benzema.
The end of a 23-match unbeaten run is less worrying than the impairments that were evident across the pitch with the honourable exception of Hugo Lloris. Without the agility and strength of France's No1, Sweden could have racked up an even more emphatic victory.
If you are a glass half-full kind of person, you could argue that this was a wake-up call to ensure the team were on the tips of their toes and at the peak of their concentration for the task ahead.
The interesting aspect is to see how much Laurent Blanc will react to what he observed. Will he just write it off as a blip or might there be changes afoot? One alteration is a certainty, as Philippe Mexès is suspended, although some would argue that his replacement should have come before it was forced. The centre-half pairing of Mexès with Adil Rami, so cumbersome against the Swedes, had been a cause of concern even before the tournament began. Laurent Koscielny will come in to add mobility and speed of thought. It will be a tough introduction to tournament football for the Arsenal defender, even though his form last season warrants the chance.
Further forward, France toiled. Sweden kept Benzema, Franck Ribéry and Ben Arfa at a safe distance, mainly restricting them to long, hopeful shots. Considering the situation, at 1-0 down Blanc's substitutions were conservative. On came Florent Malouda, then Jérémy Ménez, which didn't set any new strategic problems for the Swedes. It was very late on when Olivier Giroud made an entrance, and the giant striker almost scored from a header with his first touch. Blanc has been unwilling to play Giroud and Benzema, and he is not likely to start experimenting now, but somehow France need to offer more goal threat.
While the French went off for a long, hard look in the mirror, Sweden were proud of the way they imposed themselves – something they can take forward into World Cup qualification. As Kim Kallstrom said: "We got to show that we are a good football team. We made France play poorly. It was the first time we have managed to win in the tournament, which is a bit frustrating given the fact that we played to a standard worthy of much more than for us to be going home now."
Farewell then Sweden, who left us with some memorable souvenirs, notably some wonderful flashes from Zlatan Ibrahimovic (a top-class performance against Ukraine, an assist against England followed by a dazzling volley against France), and an inspiring tournament from the veteran Olof Mellberg, who is a contender for defender of Euro 2012 so far.
France haven't yet had an individual at the front or back to rival either of them. Blanc needs his players to have a rest, pull themselves together, and then find something approaching their very best.