Belgium beat Sweden and thereby ended Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international career. In so doing they progress to the last sixteen of the Euro 2016 championship. A narrow 1-0 victory courtesy of a sweetly struck long range effort by Radja Nianggolan in the 84th minute of an energetic contest.
Euro 2016: Belgium Beat Sweden
Marc Wilmots chose to keep faith with the team that beat the Republic of Ireland 3-0 a few days earlier. The only notable change was the inclusion of Nainggolan for the injured Mousa Demebele, whom is reported could miss the rest of the tournament. Whilst a draw would have been sufficient to see Belgium through to the next round, Wilmots needed to ensure that progress of his side was achieved without taking any undue risks. A defeat could have left Belgium struggling to qualify as one of the best third place teams.
Sweden on the other hand needed a win having only secured one point prior to this game. Belgium had beaten Sweden in their previous meeting in 2014 by 2-0. The Scandanavians knew that they would have to perform a lot better than they had been in this tournament in order to win. Ibrahimovic had earlier announced that this was to be his final international appearance if Sweden were to lose. This added another story line to the occasion.
It seemed that Belgium may at least be finding some rhythm to their play although only in patches. This Belgian teams strength clearly lies in being able to break away following an opposition attack, and so it was against Sweden. Whenever the Swedes had regrouped however, the Belgians still laboured in trying to find an opening and make the final pass. There seemed a reluctance still to use the full backs in advanced areas, particularly Jan Vertonghen. As a result many of their attacks were being stifled in the central area. That said there were some quality crosses put in to the Swedish penalty area, primarily by Kevin De Bruyne but Romelu Lukaku was having one of those games again and was too slow in reading the opportunities that were being created.
Belgium were grateful to De Bruyne in the 83rd minute when he cleared an Andreas Granqvist header off his own goal line and a minute later Belgium won the game with Nainggolan’s goal. He was teed up by Eden Hazard who had seemed to delay his pass just a little too long. The attacking opportunity appeared to be missed, however the ball arrived to Nainggolan some twenty five yards from goal and with the aid of a very slight deflection, the shot beat the goalkeeper low to his right.
It was a game of missed chances. Both Ibrahimovic and Lukaku had goals disallowed for off side. Lukaku, in particular, was guilty of missing a glaring one on one opportunity in the 73rd minute. Both goalkeepers made significant saves in the game. Thibaut Courtois making an important early save from Marcus Berg and Andreas Isaksson saving from both de Bruyne and Lukaku.
Sweden actually finished the game with slightly more possession than Belgium, however the shot count was heavily in the Belgians favour. Play swung from end to end with an alarming lack of abandon as both teams decided to go for it.
Belgium now face Hungary in the round of 16 on Sunday in Toulouse. Despite not yet finding any scintillating form they had in qualifying; it could be that things are finally coming together for the Belgians. This includes the path to the final. The way the draw has panned out now then they cannot face any of the pre-tournament favourites (Spain, Germany, France, Italy or England) until the final itself should they get there.
This will add to the pressure and expectation for Wilmots and his team. It will be interesting to see how this will affect them. An undoubtedly talented squad from which much has been expected, they will now be looked at to reach the final. Football is never that easy of course and Hungary will be no push overs having finished top of Group F. However, this could be the most important time in Belgian football history. Many will wager that Wilmots is acutely aware of this.