Euro 2012: Sweden with home advantage
...expectations in Sweden are on the up regardless of the up-and-down qualifying campaign.
Niclas Sandberg's Expert Guide to Sweden's Euro 2012 chances.
Sweden coach Erik Hamren was a welcome appointment when he replaced Lars Lagerback as boss in November 2009: the Lagerback regime may have reached four consecutive major finals before failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, but it had grown stale and increasingly unpopular.
Hamren, a former Under-21 coach, was open, funny, and he played more expansive football. The first results were incredibly positive, as Sweden out-played Hungary in the first qualifier with a 2-0 win then thrashed San Marino 6-0. When Sweden went to Holland and tried to play the same expansive football, they lost 4-1. Hamren has used a more cautious approach since, but he remains popular.
Ibra, always Ibra
Unsurprisingly, the main talking-point around the team has revolved around Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his position in the team. Ibrahimovic is, of course, the biggest star and Sweden would face an almightily struggle without him. He is the captain as well.
However, paradoxically, Sweden's stats are better without him than with him: Sweden have not dropped a single point in Euro qualifiers in games without Ibrahimovic since he made his debut for the national team team years ago. With him in the team, however, the yellow-and-blues have won only 55% of their Euro qualifiers, a staggering statistic.
In February, Sweden played a friendly in Croatia and Hamren decided to try Ibrahimovic in a more withdrawn role. He was superb. He scored one goal and set up another, playing just behind Johan Elmander as the we won 3-1. Hamren admitted the experiment had been a success - the Croats said that Ibrahimovic was 'out of this world'. Sweden should start their first game against the co-hosts Ukraine with Elmander, if fit, playing just ahead of Ibrahimovic.
The other potential selection controversy, at centre-back, has been resolved by the knee injury which ruled Celtic's Daniel Majstorovic out of the tournament. Now Jonas Olsson of West Brom, the fans' favourite, is likely to start with Olof Mellberg in the centre.
While Hamren has tried to bring through some of his Under-21 players, among them striker Ola Toivonen and defender Martin Olsson, another of his key players is part of the older brigade: goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson. The 30-year-old is someone Hamren can ill afford to lose. Johan Wiland is a decent back-up keeper but he's untested at international level.
Despite the new approach championed by Hamren, Sweden's main strength is togetherness of the squad. Several senior players, such as Ibrahimovic, Rasmus Elm, and Olof Mellberg have been in very good form for their club sides and that will breed confidence within the group.
Hamren has also worked hard on improving morale in the squad, and they seem happier together now than they did two years ago. As an example, all the players were invited to Ibrahimovic's home to eat wild boar (which the striker had caught while out hunting).
But there remain weaknesses: the defence is very slow and the lack of pace in the pairing of Mellberg-Olsson could suffer against pacy forwards. Central midfield could also be a concern as Anders Svensson and Kim Källström are not the quickest. The other issue is the potential lack of creative players if Ibrahimovic does not produce. Who else can unlock a well-organised defence? Maybe Toivonen, perhaps, but no-one in Sweden is banking on that.
Positive back home
And yet expectations in Sweden are on the up regardless of the up-and-down qualifying campaign. Despite beating Holland 3-2 in the last, thrilling game of the group to qualify for the tournament as the best runner-up, there were enough worrying performances (against Holland, Hungary and San Marino away) to dampen hopes back home. The win over Croatia in Zagreb has changed all that. Back home, the fans are dreaming about a place in the quarter-finals.
Sweden are looking a team that's tough to beat and though being the host nation is normally seen as an advantage, it carries pressure as well. I think Sweden are good for at least a draw against the Ukraine.
Lay Ukraine v Sweden @ Betfair odds of 2.4
Niclas Sandberg is a freelance Swedish journalist who has written for various publications, among them newspapers Aftonbladet and Scotland on Sunday