Zlatan Ibrahimovic bids farewell to Sweden as Belgium march on
NICE -- Three quick points from Sweden 0-1 Belgium in Group E at Euro 2016.
1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's sad Sweden farewell
Surely it was not supposed to end like this. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden career has been studded with wonderful memories, not least the playoff heroics against Denmark that took his side to Euro 2016, but his 116th cap turned out to be his last and there will be little cause to look back fondly on a fallow, frustrating fortnight.
The striker's attentions will now presumably be trained on a likely move to Manchester United. He was more involved against Belgium than at any time during the tournament, benefiting from an open game in which both sides committed men forwards, but ultimately his efforts were to no avail and everyone with an interest in Sweden knew all too well that this was the end of an era.
There were flickers that, on another night, might have brought more. Thomas Vermaelen was sharp to stop his seizing on to a loose pass and running clear 20 minutes in, and the intervention from right-back Thomas Meunier that prevented him from volleying home a right-wing cross shortly afterwards was top class.
He bobbled one shot a foot wide from a canny Marcus Berg layoff and looped a header off target early in the second half.
Yet there was also the moment when, with Emil Forsberg expecting a return pass that would have given him a promising sight of goal, Ibrahimovic opted to flick the ball up and volley it into Toby Alderweireld's midriff. It was hardly a shining example of trust in his teammates, although when he slid a perfect pass through to Berg that the striker let run past him just before the hour, it was hard not to sympathise.
A few minutes later came further evidence that it would not be his night. Ibrahimovic hooked home after Berg had helped the ball past Alderweireld, but referee Felix Brych had already blown his whistle. It was difficult to tell whether the offence punished was an offside by the scorer or a high foot from Berg. Both looked borderline but there was to be no fairytale winner, a fact rubber-stamped when Thibaut Courtois beat away his 75th-minute free-kick and a late shot on the turn flew wide.
"A World Cup without me is nothing to watch," Ibrahimovic said after Sweden had failed to qualify for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Maybe, maybe not; the shame here was that ultimately, with the scene set for a grand last hurrah, he left his final major tournament without making a significant impact.
2. Tournament opens up for Belgium
All of a sudden, things seem set up perfectly for Belgium. They have not set the group stage ablaze but qualified comfortably enough for the second round with a goal fit to win any game from Radja Nainggolan.
Placed in the opposite half to most of the favourites to rival them for the title, Belgium will kick themselves if they do not capitalise. Surprise group winners Hungary await in Toulouse, with Wales or Northern Ireland lined up for a quarterfinal. Anything short of the last four would be a major failure now, even if there is the lingering feeling this side is less than the sum of its parts.
Belgium had been profligate before Nainggolan struck six minutes from the end. Dries Mertens' ball from the left seemed to be heading away from danger, reaching the Roma midfielder five yards outside the penalty area.
Nainggolan took a touch and then, striking cleanly with the outside of his right foot, cracked a swerving shot that flew into the far corner. It was a wonderful way to settle an open, entertaining game.
Sweden, in a more ambitious incarnation than they had shown previously in the tournament, were decent preparation for the calibre of opposition Belgium are likely to face in the next two rounds. To that end it was frustrating that Belgium took so long to find a cutting edge, although they were afforded plenty of room to attack in a game that suited the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
Balls flew across the Sweden box with regularity in the first half, with the lack of finishing touch their undoing. De Bruyne, who impressed here, fizzed two cross-shots narrowly in front of Romelu Lukaku and a tempting delivery from Vermaelen met a similar fate. Axel Witsel and Meunier flashed headers wide -- the latter should have scored -- and Belgium were crying out for another critical intervention from Lukaku, who scored twice against Ireland.
He should probably have provided it on the only occasion he found space of his own in behind, but Andreas Isaksson stood tall to superbly block his lofted finish after Alderweireld had set him away 17 minutes from time. Isaksson, who had a fine game, had already saved well from De Bruyne and would deny Mertens as the clock ticked down.
This was a fair performance from Belgium, who played some attractive football at a brisk tempo. They deserved the victory, but they will have to be more clinical once the going gets tougher -- whenever that might be.
3. Sweden fall short
Sweden fought gamely but it was not to be, and perhaps Erik Hamren's side will wonder whether they should have been more assertive in their matches against Ireland and Italy. They took risks here, but the better side won and nobody can say they do not deserve their early exit.
Hamren made one tweak to the team that was beaten by Italy, recalling the striker Berg for Jonathan Guidetti. Their first two games had not brought a single shot on target; that would have to change if they were to stand any chance here and a huge opportunity -- their first clear one of the tournament -- arose within five minutes.
It was Berg who came so close to vindicating his selection. In the event, the striker should be chastised for a bad miss as much as Courtois' save deserved plaudits. Eight yards out and squarely in front of goal after a ricochet from Sebastian Larsson's free kick fell to him, Berg adjusted himself to volley powerfully but saw the keeper save to his left.
They will never win prizes for artistic merit but Sweden were far more positive here, pressing high up the pitch and offering their strikers more support from midfield than in their previous matches combined. Forsberg, tricking his way in from the left, showed in patches why he is so highly rated by those who watch his club, Red Bull Leipzig, and there were dynamic contributions from central midfielder Albin Ekdal and the attack-minded left-back Martin Olsson.
Further clear chances were few, though, despite Ibrahimovic's best efforts. They might point to the header from Andreas Granqvist -- a minute before Belgium's winner -- that De Bruyne belted off the line. But despite their improvement, they did not do enough to avoid a trip home after the group stage.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.