Radja Nainggolan’s deflected strike six minutes from time earned Belgium a place in the knockout stage of UEFA EURO 2016, in the process ensuring Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimović’s stellar international career ended on a losing note.
A breathless encounter was heading for stalemate when the holding midfielder walked on to Eden Hazard’s cutback from the byline and unleashed a right-footed drive that whizzed past Andreas Isaksson with the aid of a deflection off Erkan Zengin.
The goal also rubber-stamped the elimination of a Sweden side for whom Marcus Berg had corrected the unwanted statistic of not having had a shot on target all tournament – a fifth-minute volley that was beaten out by Thibaut Courtois.
The teams continued to trade blows as the contest ebbed and flowed, the pace belying the stuffiness of a warm night on the French Riviera. The roaming Kevin De Bruyne proved a handful for Erik Hamrén’s men, who redoubled their efforts after the restart as the tempo remained high.
The Swedes were unable to fashion a breakthrough, however, and were eventually undone by Nainggolan’s strike from outside the box, shortly after Romelu Lukaku and substitute Dries Mertens had been denied by Isaksson. Ibrahimović went close with a late volley, but the dream farewell goal was not to be.
The challenge for Sweden now is to regroup, with a new coach and captain, for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Man of the match: Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard not only supplied the assist for Nainggolan’s fierce drive; the skipper, with his dribbing and crossing ability on show, also set up five opportunities for team-mates on top of completing 43 of his 47 attempted passes.
De Bruyne influence
Though he started centrally, the Manchester City player was at his most dangerous on the left. Belgium’s No7 will have been frustrated that nobody got on the end of two teasing crosses, delivered with either foot, while he twice tested Isaksson’s reflexes from outside the area. Belgium have never lost when De Bruyne has scored, so if he finds his range then the Red Devils will be a match for anybody.
As was the case in his previous two outings, clear-cut openings were scarce for Ibrahimović. Playing in a stadium where he had netted twice in a 4-0 win for Paris Saint-Germain last December, Sweden’s talisman had to manufacture his two first-half attempts, one of them an impudent flick and volley that was blocked. A header over the bar, a free-kick pushed away by Courtois and a last-gasp shot were the sum of his second-half endeavours.
Sweden’s downfall has ultimately been a lack of punch, although they gave it a go here in front of their own Prince Carl Philip. Only five players scored for the Blågult in qualifying, a much lower figure than for any of their group rivals, with Ibrahimović contributing 11 goals. If the big man was not firing, others needed to step up. With the No10 having donned the yellow jersey for the last time, that has become even more pertinent.