Sweden 1 Slovakia 0
An intriguing tactical battle, a slow-burning minor classic, an enthralling game of subtly shifting patterns … ah, who are we kidding? This was dreadful, the worst game of the tournament so far by some margin. But in the end, Sweden will not be bothered by that. Against opponents devoid of intent or quality, it very slightly increased the pressure in the second half and were rewarded with a penalty and a winner from Emil Forsberg.
Four points may be enough already to secure Sweden’s passage to the last 16, but for Slovakia there must be a sense of an opportunity squandered. They will probably now need at least a draw against Spain if they are to make it through – and for that they have only themselves to blame.
Slovakia only completed 335 passes in their opening win, well over 100 fewer than the side their beat, Poland, and yet that was still almost four times more than Sweden mustered in drawing with Spain, when their goalkeeper Robin Olsen had more touches than any other player on their side. There was a danger this game would become a game of chicken, the ball sitting alone on the centre spot while the two teams waited, daring each other to flinch and make the first move.
It wasn’t quite that uneventful for the first hour, but it wasn’t far off – and at least if neither side had touched the ball at all it would have been a talking point. Perhaps the heat in St Petersburg played a part but in a tournament that has been characterised so far by relatively entertaining and urgent football, this was a throwback to the worst of France five years ago, when the trend was for deep-lying defences and the mood one of caution.
For a long time, nothing happened. Nothing kept happening, over and over again. And then nothing happened some more. Even when Olsen made an excellent reflex save from a Juraj Kucka header, it was offside.
Neither of Slovakia's two central forwards, Marek Hamsik and Ondrej Duda are orthodox strikers, both players who naturally drop deep or pull wide. That could have created interesting angles and possibilities, but there is little point making space if there is nobody to break into it. Martin Koscelnik on the right is a converted full-back, while Robert Mak, whose run forced Wojciech Szczesny's own-goal in the win over Poland, likes the ball to feet rather than somebody who would naturally run in beyond the last man.
To earn a point with a touch under 15 per cent possession, as Sweden did in that first game, is an achievement, and there is something admirable a bloodymindedness that forced Spain into self-parody. But it is one thing to do that against dominant opponents who can be lured into the trap, quite another to do it against a side so rigid in its 4-4-2 that there are table football teams that look fluid by comparison.
Janne Andersson, the Sweden coach, vowed his side would not go gung-ho, and was as good as his word. Real Sociedad's Alexander Isak showed signs of his quality in the game against Spain, but he is a player at his best when there is space to accelerate into, and there was no space behind a disciplined and resolute Slovakian defence.
Every now and again, Sebastian Larsson wound up his 36-year-old right foot to whip in an awkward delivery. From one cross on the hour Ludwig Augustinsson drew a fine save from Martin Dubravka. Too often, though, the delivery was poor and there was rarely anybody in the box to take advantage anyway. This, it was all too easy to remember, is a side for whom nobody had more shots on target in the group stage five years ago than the Republic of Ireland's Ciaran Clark.
But in the final half hour, Sweden did begin to exert some pressure. Isak forced Dubravka into a sharp save at his near post after a dart in from the left with 19 minutes to go, and then, at last, six minutes later, the substitute Robin Quaison burst through and was felled by Dubravka. Forsberg converted without fuss.
Could Slovakia raise themselves to force an equaliser? They could not. They are a drab team and they lost drably. - Guardian