Saturday, June 14, 2008

Last-gasp Villa is Swede charity

EURO 2008: Spain 2:1 Sweden Stadion Tivoli NEU, Innsbruck. Att: 30,772
Torres 15', Ibrahimovic 34', Villa 90'

David Villa, the hat-trick hero for Spain against Russia, roused himself to net an injury time winner send Spain through to the quarter final in Vienna on the 22nd of June.

The last-gasp strike from the Valencia marksman was harsh on a well-drilled Swedish eleven who had matched the previously dazzling Spaniards and done more than enough to have earned a point.

Fernando Torres had given Spain the lead in the 15th minute, wrong-footing Andreas Isaksson with his flick, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled Sweden level eleven minutes before the break with some typically muscular forward play.

For the first ten minutes, there was little to choose between the sides, although Spain were a touch the more incisive. Twice Fernando Torres ghosted past the right back Mikael Nilsson in the box, but failed to deliver a final pass.

In the 15th minute Spain snatched the lead when Sweden failed to clear a corner adequately. The ball fell to Xavi Fernandes 20 yards from goal and the Barcelona playmaker stroked the ball into the melee for Fernando Torres to stretch and direct the ball past Andreas Isaksson.

Yet only seconds later the Swedes spurned a chance to draw level when Johan Elmander hit the side netting after being put through by Henrik Larsson.

Sweden's dynamic duo up front were finding space hard to come by but a morsel of endeavour by Zlatan Ibrahimovic played Larsson through in the 22nd minute, only for the former Celtic star to chip over the bar.

25th Carlos Puyol was oddly replaced by Raul Albiol. Puyol didn't look injured or happy, so it may well have been punishment by coach Luis Aragones for him missing a soft backpass a few minutes earlier.

A minute later a Swedish set piece from the right wing found Ibrahimovic but his close range short was blocked by Sergio Ramos.

In the 34th Sweden were level. Daniel Andersson picked out an overlapping Fredrik Stoor on the right wing. Stoor controlled perfectly before whipping in a cross to the heart of the box. Larsson leaped but the ball fell to Ibrahimovic at the far post.

After keeping his footing, the Inter striker out-muscled Ramos and turned the ball into the far corner, past a helpless Iker Casillas.

David Villa the hat-trick hero against Russia, was missing in action, although he did pull a reflex save out of Isaksson in the 38th when Olof Mellberg's headed clearance fell at his boots.

But for the closing minutes of the half it was the Swedes who had the wind in their sails while the turbo-charged Spain of a few days ago was stuck in first gear.

The half ended finely poised with the much-fancied Spain having experienced an uncomfortable 45 minutes from their underrated Scandinavian adversaries.

If the Swedes were edging this game, perhaps it was down to the climactic conditions. With snow still visible on the highest peaks around us, a cool breeze blew through the stadium, making it decidedly jacket weather in mid-summer.

Just short of the hour mark, Aragones had seen enough yellow possession and replaced Xavi & Andres Iniesta with Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla.

In the 63rd Spain at last started weaving their magic and a crazy sequence which saw David Silva's shot saved, Villa round Isaksson and pass back before Torres' sidefoot was cleared almost off the line.

Five minutes later Senna decided to move up from defensive midfield and drew a diving tip away by Isaksson from 20 yards out. By the 70th minute mark the Spanish were in control territorially, Sweden opting to stay firm and wait for the breaks.

For all the Iberian possession, Sweden looked just as likely to score on the counter. The yellow jerseys had formed a solid block at the back, which looked difficult to breach.

With eleven minutes left, Sweden made a rare foray upfield and almost scored. Petter Hansson found space down the left and drilled the ball across an unguared goal. A younger Henrik Larsson might have stretched out to connect, but the ball rolled past him.

After Ibrahimovic's injury-forced halftime exit, Swedish coach Lars Lagerback withdrew Johan Elmander in the 79th and a tired Henrik Larsson seven minutes later.

The game looked certain to end level. Two powerful teams had slugged it out but neither looked eager to change their 4-1-3-2 formations to throw men forward in search of a winner.

But then Spain, having kept for so long to their keep the ball philosophy, discovered the joys of Wimbledon in the final two minutes. First, a long punt by Marcos Senna in the 89th was knocked down by Villa, allowing Torres to fire off a shot which Isaksson threw himself low to save.

Then with the clock deep into the three added minutes, left back Ricardo Capdevila launched it long towards the edge of the Swedish box.

Villa collected it, forced himself past the dithering Hansson and finished in the corner past a flailing Isaksson to hand Spain the spoils.

While Spain advance to Vienna to play the second team in Group C, Sweden must get a result against Russia in their final game to ensure their progress.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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