Spain like Netherlands, Germany and Portugal were under pressure to repeat their stellar performance from the first set of matches. Germany clearly were not upto the challenge though Portugal and Netherlands both made it two out of two and have emerged as strong title contenders.
I’m in no way a fan of Luis Aragones but Spain have been on a streak and he has to be given some credit for it. It would help to have, what in general opinion is the best set of players in the tournament.
Lars Lagerback’s Sweden came into the game with lesser pressure but an equal amount of confidence following a very convincing win against holders Greece.
The game began as expected. Still no place for Cesc but it’s difficult to say that his being there would further improve the mid-field, great player though he is.
Spain kept calm and eye-pleasing possession and not too late into the game scored through a Fernando Torres header from Silva’s ball in. That would be the last time they would win an aerial ball in the Swedish box for a long-long time.
Not for the first time in this tournament, we saw a team wake up suddenly after conceding. Sweden decided it was time to press hard when without possession and cut-off the supply lines to Xavi, Iniesta and Silva. They also got their own forwards involved much more and played what can be best described as the typical English game. Before you knew it they looked more likely to score especially from long balls in to the strikers or set pieces.
Imbrahimovic did score from one such ball when he was allowed to trap, turn and shoot from six yards. And even though the shot was not the greatest, it was placed well and did enough to beat Casillas. The point to note is that neither of the two brilliant Spanish strikers were afforded such time and space by the Swedes in their area.
Aragones did try the usual set of changes by getting Fabregas in but things did not improve significantly. Critically for their tournament prospects, Puyol limped off to be replaced by Albiol, which hardly spoke much about the Spaniards depth in defence.
The Swedes also went through the second half doing enough to stop the Spanish from playing their passing game, but with Ibra out injured, their goal threat reduced significantly.
The late winner scored by Villa has to be the only reason Spain did eventually deserve to win. Any team which can score like that should win. A desperate long ball by Capdevilla, stopped with a delightful touch, a quick change of balance, first towards the left and then right to throw one defender off and then before the other two could close in an explosive shot into the back of the net. 2-1 Spain.
The goal reminded me of Bergkamp’s winner against Argentina in ’98 and Kaka’s Champion’s League semi-final goal against ManU in 2007. Kaka did have more space though and Bergkamp probably had an easier finish after having controlled the ball, so I will rate this one higher.
So Spain did win and ensure qualification, but the Swedes showed how they could be stopped. Xavi, Iniesta and even Senna looked fragile and seemed unable to cope with the Swedes’ bully approach. Xavi and Iniesta were particularly poor with only the strikers and Silva really getting positive marks for the game.
As for the Swedes, they face a tough final game against Russia and they will need Ibra fit. I don’t know their squad too well, so can’t comment on replacements, but Larsson looks unlikely to pose a major goal threat, though he still gets into positions and can create. I think they have a stronger team overall than the Russians but I would not bet on them going through, especially as one Mr. Hiddink is waiting to stop them.