Two sides with stunningly unproductive attacks launched balls anywhere but on frame in St. Petersburg, only to be separated by a deflection. This was a fairly dreary performance but a deserved victory for Sweden, who've been making fools of the doubters (like me) all Cup. Surrounded by Ferraris, Escalades, and BMWs, they've been happy to play monster truck on everyone's roof so far, and have a Rolls Royce in their sights next now that Merry Old England have broken the hex.
Plenty of stars have packed and left, but the best defensive lines are still kicking. Brazil, Uruguay, Croatia, and (could it be?) England, and a fair debate as to whether Uruguay or Sweden is the best. We all now know the rugged captain Granqvist, who radiates confidence and an iron will, while Lindelof has showed his merits (and makes one wonder how Chris Smalling’s kept him out of the Man United side). Augustinsson did in Mexico and was here again keeping Shaquiri out of dangerous positions (a task made easier by the latter’s utter refusal to use his left foot). Lustig held up his end of the bargain, but with a yellow that keeps him out for the next match. They are very hard to beat--and not just because of bunkering in--they have broken teams down mentally by not giving an inch and winning individual battles. In Ekdal and Svensson, two hard-nosed athletes as a shield; I prefer Svensson to Seb Larsson, who will likely get the start against England due to his specialist rank on free kicks. I’ve seen Svensson a good bit with the woeful Seattle Sounders (how good that feels to say!), and he is razor sharp from a mental standpoint. This team has given up two goals, and has been behind for not even a minute of the World Cup (Germany was only ahead for seconds). They are the tallest remaining team in the tournament, too. When they went into full besieged mode, they blocked shot after shot today and were simply unbreakable.
Offensively, their two strikers (Berg and Toivonnen) look like Army Ranger School graduates, big enough to kill you with one hand tied behind their backs, and fast enough to catch you while carrying the other on his back. They hack at the goal long enough and something might just come from it, though Berg’s broad-side-of-the-barn hilarity makes you kind of doubt it. It should be said the the excellent Yann Sommer had to fly to his left to parry a Berg snapshot, so I should give Berg some credit. But they’re largely woeful and relentless. And Ekdal chipped in by skying a good and a great opportunity, adding to the comical finishing efforts.
The difference maker is Emil Forsberg, the Red Bull Leipzig attacking player whose speed and deceptiveness on the dribble immediately catch the eye. He was woeful in his finishing against Mexico, and here his shot wasn’t going to trouble Sommer until Dortmund’s Miguel Akanji got an unfortunate toe in, deflecting it past the stranded keeper. However, it was the drop-of-the-shoulder that froze Granit Xhaka in place, a moment of quality that turned the match.
Timo Werner, Poulsen, and Forsberg all ply their wares at Red Bull, so that’s a team I’ll have to watch this coming year.
The Swiss go home not having played their best match; perhaps if Lichtsteiner and Schar had manned the right side, they’re still in, but they were short on ideas today, and without any Shaquiri brilliance, it just wasn’t in the cards. In Sommer and the excellent Ricardo Rodriguez--my pick for best left back in the tournament--we say goodbye to a pair who were fantastic through their four matches. They had a good run.
In the end, you have to credit Sweden’s defensive work across the pitch and immense spirit. When you manhandle South Korea, barely lose to Germany, thrash Mexico and stone the Swiss, you’re a handful. England will have to be far more precise in the attack if they want a different result.