GLASGOW, Scotland – No team in the round of 16 at Euro 2020 was luckier to be there than Ukraine. But that didn’t matter. As the last vestiges of the summer sunlight faded over Hampden Park, as the clock ticked towards the third of three minutes of overtime at the end of extra time, Oleksandr Zinchenko measured another cross from the left. Delivery was good. Substitute Artem Dovbyk kept running, lunged forward and headed hard at Robin Olsen. For 20 minutes Sweden, clearly exhausted, held out with 10 men. But they couldn’t hold out long enough for penalties, so Ukraine will meet England in Rome in the quarter-finals on Saturday after a historic 2-1 victory.
A loose defeat to Austria in Ukraine’s final group stage game, when a draw would have ensured progress, seemed to have left Andriy Shevchenko out. However, it was saved in part by Slovakia’s profound ineptitude and (more important from its point of view given the geopolitical climate) by Russia’s capitulation against Denmark. When the draw was made, the Ukraine group looked the weakest in the tournament, and the teams that finished first and second, the Netherlands and Austria, had already come out.
But Ukraine made the most of his pardon. The loss of left winger Oleksandr Zubkov in the opener had unsettled Ukraine. He had fought to replace him. The experiment of pushing Ruslan Malinovskyi to the left against North Macedonia and Austria really didn’t work. Shevchenko’s solution was to go back to the 3-5-2 he had used in a couple of pre-tournament friendlies. That pushed Zinchenko to left-back, a somewhat unexpected role for a player seen almost as Ukraine’s playmaker. But the wisdom of the change became apparent after 28 minutes, when he crashed a clean pass from Andriy Yarmolenko into the corner, following a good game change from Mykola Shaparenko, who seemed confident in his deepest role.
Sweden had started relatively brilliantly, but with overstaffed midfield and their center forwards playing 2v3, they had struggled to get far behind and, when they fell behind, they looked a bit flat. But then, just before halftime, Emil Forsberg found space at 25 yards and his deflected shot flew past Georgiy Bushchan, making him the first Swede to score in three consecutive tournament games since Kennet Andersson in 1994.
Sweden’s return from the COVID-19 hiatus was difficult, as they lost six of eight, but this year their form has been remarkable, winning seven of eight and keeping six clean sheets. Only the return of Zlatan Ibrahimović from international retirement threatened to interrupt their preparations, but he had barely returned to the squad when injury forced him out again. Would it have changed a lot? It might have offered them more of a focal point up front instead of Marcus Berg or Robin Quaison, but the connection of Alexander Isak, Forsberg and, when available, Dejan Kulusevski, has been effective enough. Certainly the feel of the World Cup was that Sweden was benefiting from playing without the great gravitational pull of Zlatan’s ego.
Having tested positive for COVID-19 before the tournament, Kulusevski made his first tournament start on Tuesday. It offers a different threat to the Swedes, making them more fluid in the attacking areas, but it was largely peripheral here. Most of it went through Forsberg, who hit the wood twice in the second half with curling efforts as he slid down the left.
But Ukraine was always a threat, quickly changing the game between the wings. Serhiy Sydochuk had also hit the post after a clever interaction between Yarmolenko and right-back Oleksandr Karavayev. And just when it looked like he was fading, Marcus Danielson pounced on Artem Besedin and was sent off following the VAR review, a play on the ball that resulted in a bolt deforming Besedin’s knee. The momentum of the game, which seemed to be tilting Sweden’s path, shifted in the other direction.
For Sweden, the well-known two banks of four remained, but with only one striker. Maybe then Zlatan would have given him something extra. But the side’s discipline could not fail. He endured and endured. Punishments seemed certain. And then another one of those game changes brought another opportunity and with it the second last goal in Euro history.
When the ball hit the net, the Swedes collapsed. The Ukrainians squirmed in delight. A large topless man with a shaved head ran onto the field before collapsing in ecstasy. A week ago, Ukraine seemed to be coming out of the competition, but now it is in the important quarter-finals for the second time in history, and the first since the 2006 World Cup. In this tournament of surprises and drama at every turn, Ukraine saved one for the last gasp of an unforgettable knockout round.
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