Sweden 0 Belgium 1
La Fin. In France, the country where Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won so many hearts as he played out the last few years of his career in his own inimitable style, a yellow curtain fell. Sweden put their guts into a last dance, but it was brutal, thumping strike from a player who likes to think he has a big personality – Belgium’s Radja Nainggolan – which whisked the wind out of their sails. Ibrahimovic watched on from the centre circle. He knew.
Don’t take me home has been a soundtrack to this tournament but Ibrahimovic leaves to ponder his club future and the end of his international efforts. It will be a summer of big reflections for such a huge figure in Swedish football.
As for Belgium, second place in the group has turned out to be quite a blessing but there remains kinks to iron out of this team in the knock out matches ahead.
The final set of group games, the apparently laborious mission of playing 36 matches to slice eight teams out of the equation, finally boiled down to this. All four group E teams had something to play for, whether jostling for position or mere survival.
For a couple of individuals in the Swedish camp there was something extra, something personally meaningful, on the line. Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s iconic figurehead, a bulldozer and a ballerina all in one intoxicating package, and their long-standing manager Erik Hamren, knew their international careers would only last as long as Sweden in this tournament. The situation was clear: win or goodbye and thanks for the ride.
Having strained to even muster a shot on target in their opening two games, Sweden suddenly found themselves with clear sight of goal. Sebastian Larsson's clipped ball fell to Marcus Berg, who hooked a shot straight at Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium were a bit bewildering as the game tried to get going because they switched on flashes of sweet football, and then switched off for a while.
Kevin De Bruyne was central to so much of their best work. Positioned in the middle, free to roam and do damage, he was a pivotal influence. Belgium's threat came in a variety of ways – woven passing moves one moment, mazy dribbles the next, whipped crosses from the flanks . Romelu Lukaku had a couple of those near-contact opportunities where he was close but not close enough.
Promising moves ebbed and drifted. Belgium flicked through the gears as Eden Hazard danced forwards and dinked the ball for De Bruyne to whack at Andreas Isaksson. The Manchester City attacker's perfect cross was met by Thomas Meunier, whose glancing header flashed just past the post.
Meanwhile, what of Ibrahimovic? Midway though the first half he began to pick up speed. He connected to send a rasping shot wide in the 25th minute and threw a rueful expression.
Sweden were stronger after the interval. Hamren paced around his technical area and applauded his team’s efforts. Kim Kallstrom did manage to find Ibrahimovic with a long pass but his header was steered over Courtois’s goal.
All paths led to Ibrahimovic. His desire rubbed off on his eager team-mates and Sweden’s No10 began to enjoy some space to strut and pull strings. It was not untypical of his international experience that his high wavelength was not so easily picked up. One flicked pass looked inviting for Berg but the Panathinaikos striker was not up to speed. On the hour mark the yellow wall of Sweden fans almost had a moment to cherish. Berg lifted a pass over Toby Alderweireld to Ibrahimovic, who raised one of those clever feet to stab the ball into the net. The goal was disallowed.
Belgium’s own tempo was erratic. Yannick Carrasco tried to pep things up with a dangerous cross that was turned away by Sweden with some relief. De Bruyne was the man who lifted them with a shot out of the blue, a low crack which invited a strong one-handed save from Isaksson. The Swedish keeper excelled again to deny Lukaku on the run. When Everton’s striker did find the net with a second take he was ruled offisde.
Back came Sweden and Ibrahimovic tested Courtois with a low free-kick. De Bruyne headed Andreas Granquist’s chance off the line. But the pendulum swung again. Lukaku and Dries Mertens both had chances before Belgium summoned a moment that counted. Nianggolan left fly and that was that. The Belgian celebrations began.