After 90 minutes of heroic, courageous, relentless defending, Sweden were undone. Unfortunately for them the game lasted 93 minutes and a mistake involving their two central defenders, Peter Hansson and Olof Mellberg, allowed the quicksilver David Villa to pounce. His goal ensured Spain's passage to the last eight of this competition and left Sweden without a point that they had deserved.
Sweden's sense of injustice was compounded by the loss to injury of Zlatan Ibrahimovic who had threatened to dominate the encounter as he traded first-half goals with that other young tyro of European football, Fernando Torres. Villa's goal extended to four the number he has now achieved in Euro 2008 and also extended Spain's run to eight straight victories. They will equal their all-time record if, as expected, they beat Greece later this week. They can also now afford to rest players.
It was a result that was cruel on Sweden who, despite Spain's clever play and creativity, had played with great courage especially after losing Ibrahimovic. It was especially cruel on Mellberg, who had marshalled his defence brilliantly and not allowed Torres or Villa the opportunities to enhance their reputations further. Still the hard facts are that both of them scored.
The rout of Russia in their opening game – as exhilarating as their performance was – was also aided by what the losers' coach Guus Hiddink lamented was his team's naivete. Given their experience, physical power and streetwise nous the Swedes represented a different kind of test. Even so they were lacking, through injury, Christian Wilhelmsson, who will miss the rest of the tournament, and their makeshift right-back Niclas Alexandersson.
Of even greater concern was Ibrahimovic's knee. The striker has barely trained of late but, as expected, made it to complete the partnership with Henrik Larsson that has so exercised the Spanish media in the past few days. Things had also appeared strained for the Spaniards – with Torres looking unhappy with coach Luis Aragones after being substituted against the Russians and Cesc Fabregas again relegated to the bench (although both players protested they were content). And the coach was also challenged about a nightclub visit by defender Sergio Ramos but laughed it off by saying it was a day off.
Spirits were high inside the stadium also, one of those vertiginous arenas often found in Europe, which was made all the more dramatic because of the setting. The Swedes tend to travel more enthusiastically than the Spanish and they outnumbered their opponents with thousands more, ticketless, swarming the streets outside.
Inside the first minute they were almost given cause forcelebration. There is historybetween Ibrahimovic andCarlos Marchena – the latter was banned for four Champions' League games for Valencia after a brawl with the Internazionale striker – but this time it was the Swede who had the chance to land the first blow. Left unmarked by the central defender, he was picked out,inside the penalty area, by Mellberg only for his chest-down to be too clumsy.
But quickly it was Spain who gained control with their clever play and movement stretching the Swedes. A rising shot by Andres Iniesta cleared the bar, Torres burst into the area and then, as the Swedes retreated a corner was won. As they organised themselves it was smartly taken and then David Silva sent in a chest-high cross for Torres to steal in front of Hansson and divert the ball into the net with his right foot after 15 minutes.
Immediately Sweden had the opportunity to hit back but after Johan Elmander broke into the area, after a disguised pass by Larsson, he sliced his shot into the side-netting. Moments later and Ibrahimovic struck an even more impressive pass, floating the ball to Larsson who hooked it over while Spain also had to contend with the loss, to injury, of Carles Puyol. It shook them – and Sweden equalised after 34 minutes. A raking pass by Daniel Andersson picked out Fredrik Stoor whose dangerous cross caused panic. Larsson leapt and the ball fell to Ibrahimovic who had the composure to cut back inside Ramos and squeeze the ball past Iker Casillas, who got a hand to it.
It sealed an impressive reaction by the Swedes who had seized the game after falling behind. Still it appeared that Puyol's departure was a decisive factor, although the Spaniards demanded a penalty to restore their advantage after Silva was flattened in the area when Elmander ran into him to defend a cross.
The loss of Ibrahimovic at half-time was deflating for the Swedes. The impetus switched and only an alert challenge by Anders Svensson halted Villa as he shaped to shoot. The Swedes were pushed back, conceding a series of free-kicks, although in a rapid break-out Elmander was felled by Marchena. The game was becoming more ragged before, from another free-kick, Mellberg's back header just cleared his own bar as Torres rushed in. Unsurprisingly, Aragones rang the changes, introducing Fabregas, and re-shaping his midfield.
It almost had an immediate dividend. Villa and Silva combined only for Andreas Isaksson to push away the latter's shot. However Villa pounced, only for the goalkeeper to force him wide. He turned and laid the ball into Torres's path but his goal-bound effort was blocked by Hansson and scrambled away for a corner. Isaksson again had to intervene to turn away Marcos Senna's long-range, dipping shot.
If Larsson had been that little bit sharper he could have reached Hansson's knock-back from a free-kick to have snatched a victory for the Swedes. If only Ibrahimovic had been on the pitch at that moment. Or Larsson a couple of years younger. It proved costly with Villa's late goal after he latched on to a long ball forward from defence.