Sweden saved by VAR after struggling without Zlatan Ibrahimovic
NIZHNY NOVGOROD - Three quick points on Sweden 1-0 South Korea in Group F at the World Cup on Monday afternoon.
1. Sweden's historic victory after VAR saves the day
Mexico's 1-0 victory over Germany on Sunday in Moscow threw all predictions about Group F out of the window. The common consensus and logical outcome saw the reigning world champions coast through the group, while Mexico and Sweden -- and perhaps even South Korea -- fought it out for second place. But after the first round of games, it is Sweden and Mexico on top, with Germany and South Korea without a point.
Make no mistake, this was a huge win for Sweden in a game that will not live long in the memory, although it was decided by the video assistant referee (VAR).
Sweden dominated the first half but struggled to break through and needed VAR to come to the rescue when Hwang Hee-Chan brought down Viktor Claesson in the penalty area in the 63rd minute. Referee Joel Aguilar let play go on despite furious Swedish protests until he got the order to review the play. It turned out to be an example of the benefits of the system, and Andreas Granqvist stepped up to put Sweden ahead in the 65th minute.
The game shifted with Sweden ahead as South Korea took more control of the ball and came out of their defensive shell. Hwang had a golden opportunity to make up for his previous indiscretion with a header in second half injury time, but in a game that looked on paper a must-win game for both these teams, Sweden scraped the result. It certainly wasn't the one that Germany would've wanted.
The knock-on effect now is that the world champions have very little margin for error. While it shouldn't be too troubling to pick up six points from the remaining two games, Sweden have a pedigree of upsetting world giants with their sturdy defence -- as Italy found out in qualifying.
2. Life after Zlatan is tough
Sweden were just about good enough, but it wasn't exactly an inspiring display.
While you can't imagine this solid Sweden team being rolled over, it's difficult to get excited about a side that fields two burly strikers and has minimal build-up play. A more direct game worked for them to get to Russia 2018, but coming up against a side in South Korea that were also willing to sit back, soak up pressure and hit on the break, the Scandinavians needed a bit of X factor, some flair.
Who knows what Zlatan Ibrahimovic, here in Russia, was thinking as Marcus Berg failed to net in the 21st minute as the goal gaped in front of him and the Al Ain striker could only find goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-Woo. Or what was running through his mind as Berg snatched at a chance in the 29th minute.
The Swedish group may be stronger without Ibrahimovic, and the fact that this was largely the squad that earned qualification is worthy of respect. But this is a World Cup and you need big players. It defies rationality to think that having the LA Galaxy striker on the bench wouldn't have strengthened Sweden's chances. It's not like Berg or Ola Toivonen -- both, like Ibrahimovic, strong in the air -- are particularly mobile. And Ibrahimovic would've brought some verve, arrogance and, frankly, interest around this Swedish side.
Against stronger opposition in Mexico and Germany, Sweden will need to produce and Ibrahimovic coming off the bench if the side need it couldn't have done the team's chances any harm.
Sweden picked up the three points, but it wasn't a display that instilled confidence, although perhaps being more on the back foot against Germany and Mexico may suit them.
3. Quiet Son needs to spark Korea into life
Korea's players changed numbers in training ahead of Monday's game to confuse Sweden's scouts, Korea coach Shin Tae-yong revealed ahead of the game. It was a novel tactic.
But there can be no papering over or hiding the importance of Tottenham's Son Hueng-Min to South Korea's chances. It may well be a little unfair to heap all the weight of expectation and responsibility onto the shoulders of one player. But in a squad containing only five players that ply their trade outside of Asia, Son is the only Korean player anywhere near elite level.
Against Sweden, he was wasted. Instead of playing as a striker in a 4-4-2, as Korea have previously played, Shin fielded Son as a winger in a 4-5-1 which was noted as a 4-3-3 by FIFA but much more defensive in reality. The repercussion was that Son was too far away from goal to do damage, with South Korea defending deep and waiting for Sweden to cross the halfway line before pressing.
He did get a chance to burst down the right in the 35th minute and sent in a dangerous cross, but there was very little of note from the 25-year-old apart from that.
After South Korea went behind, Son was moved centrally, but it was too late. It was clear before the tournament, and it is even clearer after this defeat: If South Korea are to recover from what looks set to be a costly blow in Nizhny Novgorod, Son is going to have to be much more influential.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.