England edged a dramatic game in Kiev to seal their first ever competitive win over Sweden with a 3-2 victory.
A defeat wouldn’t have been terminal for England’s chances of reaching the quarter finals, yet there was a sense that a win would be crucial to newly appointed England manager Roy Hodgson, with critics of his cautious approach continuing to grow in number following a perceived lack of ambition against France in the opening 1-1 draw. Hodgson addressed this lack of penetration by granting Andy Carroll his first competitive start as the attacking spearhead, with the intention of countering the height and aerial authority of Olof Mellberg and Jonas Olsson.
A win was equally important for Sweden and knowing anything less would realistically end their bid to progress from the group Erik Hamren restored Johan Elmander to the starting line-up in place of Ola Toivonen, who had been ineffective versus Ukraine on the left. Rasmus Elm was given the chance to take up his preferred role in the space vacated by Toivonen as Sweden hoped to exploit the gaps left by the attack minded Glen Johnson at right back.
The importance of the game to both sides was reflected in a tense opening 20 minutes.England enjoyed the better of the few chances as Scott Parker tested Andreas Isaksson with a sweetly struck shot from the edge of the penalty area, though Isaksson was able to block with a strong hand. Soon afterwards Danny Welbeck should have made Isaksson work again as James Milner sent a threatening ball into the box, Welbeck miscued his finish however as his header glanced feebly wide of the target.
In the absence of Wayne Rooney through suspension England’s main outlet of quality has been through their captain Steven Gerrard and this was certainly the case as England took the lead after 22 minutes. On the right Gerrard found himself with enough space to instinctively launch a missile of a cross towards Sweden’s back post for Andy Carroll to get in between Andreas Granqvist and Olof Mellberg to expertly power a header beyond a helpless Isaksson. Carroll’s finish was typical of the much maligned striker’s undisputed ability as an orthodox English style ‘number 9’ and exemplifies the added dimension he gives this England team when opposing physical sides such as Sweden.
If England were cautious with their lead over France then they were visibly nervous with the lead in this game. Ashley Young squandered a chance to extend the lead as he anxiously scuffed an effort into the side netting from inside the box as Sweden began to develop in stature towards the end of the half. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was pivotal to Sweden’s growing authority as he dropped deep to form an effective midfield triumvirate with Anders Svensson and Kim Kallstrom. Parker and Gerrard in the England centre struggled to deal with the trio’s mixture of work ethic and assurance on the ball as Ibrahimovic increasingly orchestrated a Swedish revival. For all their territorial possession and polished build up play, the best of Sweden’s chances before the break were long range efforts from Kallstrom and Ibrahimovic that Joe Hart was able to subdue with relative comfort.
Despite going into half time with the lead it wasn’t the first time at this tournament that questions could be asked of the England midfield’s ability to retain possession and build attacking momentum. The calming presence of a Jack Wilshere type figure, or even Wayne Rooney who can drop deep in a similar vein to Ibrahimovic, was being sorely missed by Roy Hodgson’s side.
The 2nd period started in disastrous fashion for England as Sweden turned the game on its head with two shell-shocking goals. Firstly England failed to pick up Olof Mellberg deep inside the box after the ball was scruffily rebounded into his path following a blocked free kick. Hart was able to get a hand to Mellberg’s effort but the ball bounced onto Johnson who failed to clear off the line as the ball squeaked in via the inside of the post for the equaliser. It was to get worse as Mellberg again found himself free in the box as Sebastian Larsson expertly swung a ball in from the left. The giant Swedish centre half, who had played in a spirit befitting of his country’s Viking heritage throughout, smashed a header beyond Hart to capture the lead.
Inevitably, falling behind in such tempestuous circumstances added an urgency that was lacking in England’s play at 1-0. This was frustrating as the Swedes initially struggled to deal with the heightened tempo of the game and it was a shame that this only became noticeable once England had fallen behind. Isaksson produced a fantastic save from John Terry’s header after Johnson swung a precise ball into the centre but from the resulting corner questions must be asked of the Swedish ‘keeper’s part in England’s equaliser. With the ball rebounding to England substitute Theo Walcott on the edge of the area, Isaksson failed to anticipate the winger’s shot as the ball sailed through a melee of players and into the centre of the Swedish goal to level the scores.
By now the game had developed into a frantic end-to-end encounter that many neutrals would have been revelling in, yet for England fans the game took an extremely tense turn for the worse as Kallstrom and Ibrahimovic both went close as Sweden pressed for the winner with England looking ragged.
Though despite the void of world class quality left by Rooney’s absence England do possess players who can act as game-changers. Theo Walcott is certainly one of these players and he put himself in good stead for a starting berth versus Ukraine when he tore apart the left hand side of the Sweden defence before squaring to Danny Welbeck, who was agile enough to flick the ball beyond Isaksson on the turn to restore England’s lead. Sweden still looked as if they had another goal within them however, making Gerrard’s late miss-hit from close range all the more desperate as England scraped their way to the final whistle.
Sweden were eliminated as the game concluded despite having played their part in the tournament’s most exciting 45 minutes of football so far. England now face the prospect of facing the co-hosts Ukraine knowing a draw will take them through to the quarter finals as at last Wayne Rooney can exert his influence on the pitch as England bid to top the group.