Friday, June 15
By Nick Ames in Kiev
If Kharkiv was the subject of a Dutch invasion, Kiev has been taken over by Swedes.
Erik Hamren’s side, who face England this evening, have the luxury of being based in Ukraine’s capital city for the entire group stage. There’s no travelling to and from Poland for them - something that Hamren openly admitted could be an advantage in his pre-match press conference yesterday. Thousands of Swedish fans have taken the opportunity to pitch up here, quite literally, for the duration - camping on an island in the middle of the River Dniepr.
Enjoyable as the frontier-like charms of Donetsk and, particularly, Kharkiv were, Kiev feels like the hub of a major tournament. It’s busy and bustling, while reminders of Euro 2012 are everywhere - from banners adorning streets and shop fronts to the surreal site of a tiny dog kitted out entirely in national team uniform.
The city’s ‘Fan Zone’ stretches down Kreschatyk, Kiev's main street, creating a pulsating nerve centre for the event and one that, yesterday at least, seemed to be dominated by Swedish yellow and blue.
The vista wasn’t too dissimilar inside the Olympic Stadium - the highly impressive arena that will hold the final. Its seats are a mixture of two colours, also the preferred shades of Ukraine. “Advantage Sweden!” as one English journalist remarked during their training session yesterday.
Before heading outside to watch, I’d seen former Arsenal midfielder Sebastian Larsson hold court deep in the bowels of the stadium. He spoke well, as most of the Swedish team appear to, and was particularly complimentary about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when I asked for his impressions of the Gunners’ young England player.
Those close to the England squad suggest that Alex won’t be in for a second consecutive start tonight as Roy Hodgson mixes up his tactics against a Swedish side that, as another member of the press pack pointed out, is strikingly tall.
Hodgson himself would not be drawn on his line-up, saying that the training session that followed his press conference would be vital in making his decision, but the likelihood is that both Alex and Theo Walcott will have to settle for a role as impact substitute.
Masses of England fans will, no doubt, be filtering into town as the day draws on. The second game of every matchday begins at 9.45pm Ukrainian time, a particularly late start if you’re working. And today promises to be both long and packed - I’m now off to an event featuring a certain Freddie Ljungberg before, if time permits, heading across town to visit the facilities of upwardly-mobile local side Arsenal Kiev.
All that comes before this evening’s main event - one that will have a big bearing on whether Alex and Theo’s Euro 2012 involvement is going to stay the course.
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