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Euro 2020: Alexander Isak inspires Sweden past Slovakia to the brink of the knockout stages

·4-min read
Alexander Isak was Sweden’s biggest threat (AP)
Alexander Isak was Sweden’s biggest threat (AP)

Styles make fights, and for 75 minutes on a hot afternoon in St Petersburg Sweden's curtain of yellow kept their penalty box concealed while Slovakia's white wall blocked forays the other way, two teams locked in mind-numbing stasis. It took a change of mindset from Sweden to shift the impasse, inspired by attacking talisman Alexander Isak, who helped tease out a penalty which Emil Forsberg converted for a crucial 1-0 victory which edges them towards the knockout stages.

Sweden now have four points from two games after a stubborn and slightly fortunate 0-0 draw with Spain, and they are doing it their way. Janne Andersson's well-drilled 4-4-2 reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup three years ago with a couple of 1-0 wins en route, and here was another in the same mould, defensively dogged with just enough attacking spark to turn a meandering draw into a momentous win.

Oddly Slovakia’s opening win over Poland may have undermined them here as they appeared to rest on the laurels, safe in the knowledge that a draw would leave them in control of the group. They were impotent throughout and didn’t do nearly enough to earn the point that had seemed assured after such a dour first half and will likely go into their final group game with Spain still needing something to continue in the tournament.

After Sweden spent 90 minutes chasing Spain around Seville, a match in which goalkeeper Robin Olsen had the most touches of any Swedish player, perhaps it was understandable that they looked a little perplexed to have a ball at their feet in the opening stages here. After half an hour Sweden had already surpassed their 89 passes completed against the Spanish, but the odd part was that they looked even more toothless.

The migration north to Russia did not produce more Nordic-friendly conditions as the afternoon heat took some sting out of the contest, causing a first half of what could be generously described as sunshine football, two sides shuffling from side to side in mirror image like two polite commuters trying to pass.

The half-time highlights reel contained blocked speculative efforts and slow-motion replays of balls bobbling tantalisingly near attackers in advanced positions. The best chance fell to the man Slovakia would have hand-picked to break the deadlock: Marek Hamsik was teed up on the edge of the box but slashed his shot over the bar.

Emil Forsberg celebrates after scoring from the spot (AP)
Emil Forsberg celebrates after scoring from the spot (AP)

But Sweden showed much more intent in the second half and Isak, their 21-year-old striker who won La Liga's young player of the season award, began to influence the game. At first everything seemed to miss its mark by a fraction: Isak’s shot fired too high, his final pass just overhit, a smart one-two with Forsberg who ran into a corridor of defenders as he reached the box.

And, just as against Spain, Sweden had goalkeeper Olsen to thank for their clean sheet. Just before the hour Hamsik delivered a deep free-kick and Juraj Kucka escaped at the far post to direct a header back across goal, which Olsen leapt to his right to keep out. Within a minute at the other end Martin Dubravka made a carbon copy save from Ludwig Augustinsson's powerful header. When the resulting corner fell invitingly to centre-back Marcus Danielson, he directed his close-range header a few inches over the bar.

Andersson injected some energy from the bench with Robin Quaison and Viktor Claesson as Sweden tried to seize the momentum, and more chances came and went. Isak saw a low shot deflect towards the corner as Dubravka stood and watched it spin safely around his right post. Lustig's deep cross from the right picked out Isak but his header floated over the bar. Isak again, drilling low at the near post, was denied by Dubravka.

Then, with 15 minutes remaining, the breakthrough. Isak was at the heart of it once more with a clever flick around the corner which released Quaison into a foot race with Dubravka. Quaison toed the ball, Dubravka clattered Quaison. It was a certain penalty, and Forsberg calmly slotted in from the spot.

Slovakia tried to shift gear but they had been stuck in reverse for too long. Sweden held out to ensure they collected three more points and a foothold in the round of 16. On this evidence they will prove a frustrating opponent for anyone who meets them.

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