A day of high drama in Group E saw top spot change twice in the final six minutes as Sweden pipped Spain to top spot in added time with a 3-2 win over Poland.
For a moment it seemed Robert Lewandowski might carry Poland into the last 16 but Viktor Claesson’s late goal ensured that Sweden retained the top spot they had held coming into the final round of games but seemed destined to lose as Spain ran in the goals in Seville. A 5-0 win over Slovakia was certainly what they needed after a frustrating start to Euro 2020 that saw them drop four points, however, they had left it too late to avoid a round of 16 draw with Croatia that promises to be one of the most intriguing fixtures of the opening knockout round.
Spain get into the scoring groove
Spain’s forward may not be setting the tournament alight, but while they and their teammates can keep opponents penned back in their defensive third, then they have the chance to force the sort of basic errors that pockmarked Slovakia’s exit from a tournament they had looked well-placed in after one match.
Early on, this was threatening to become a repeat of Spain’s two draws from their first two games, lots of possession in good areas, but woeful finishing costing the hosts dearly in Seville. Alvaro Morata in particular simply could not catch a break even when he demanded them for himself. A clumsy clearance by Jakub Hromada saw him boot Koke rather than the ball.
Morata made clear to fellow striker Gerard Moreno that he would be taking the spot kick, but there was no such assertiveness in his spot kick, an underpowered effort that Dubravka found to be at the exact right height to parry to safety. For a time you could sense Spain slipping into their familiar woes, all that territory turned into a cavalcade of near misses and what could have beens. Twice in the 19th minute the same chance went incomplete, curling crosses toward the back post missed first by Pablo Sarabia and then Pedri.
Dubravka’s reign as his country’s savior did not last long however, two costly mistakes setting Spain on course for their first win of the tournament. In his defense, he rarely has to deal with the circumstances from which the opening goal came, a Sarabia shot looping high off the crossbar and down toward the goal-line. It was nothing more than a misjudged jump but it was crucial, Newcastle’s No. 1 flapping into the net a ball he had been aiming to punch over the bar.
The Seville heat, the composure of their opponents and the sheer mental demands of keeping their shape without the ball seemed to be getting to Slovakia and in particular Dubravka. Perhaps that explained why he came sprinting out from his six-yard box in an attempt to block Gerard Moreno’s passing lines. The Villarreal forward clipped a cross above the goalkeeper, one that asked a great deal of Aymeric Laporte but the center back was up to the task, stretching his neck muscles back to loop the ball into the far corner.
Suddenly, Spain seemed at ease, Pablo Sarabia adding their third 10 minutes into the second half as he got on the end of one of Jordi Alba’s trademark fizzing crosses along the turf, the PSG forward making the most of the space provided by Morata’s run into space. As for Spain’s center forward, the goal would not come alongside a performance where he had done so much else so well. His replacement Ferran Torres added a fourth soon after his introduction, a backheeled flick to turn Sarabia’s low cross past Dubravka. A fifth goal came when Juraj Kucka could only clear Pau Torres’ header into the net, Spain bettering the mark they set in the 2012 final for their biggest win at the European Championships.
The sheer weight of goals Slovakia were being buried under were cause for jubilation in Ukraine, who have now qualified as one of the best performing third-placed teams. Spain, meanwhile, have a reminder that their possession and territory that looked so passive earlier in this competition can come with rewards, particularly against a defense as drained as Slovakia’s.
Lewandowski denies Swede top spot
Still, victory proved not to be enough for Spain to reach Group E’s summit, Lewandowski’s one-man mission to pull Poland into the last 16 fell short as substitute Claesson scored in the third minute of added time to win a thriller in Saint Petersburg.
Early interplay between Emil Forsberg and Alexander Isak that developed from the cool to the clumsy ended with the former driving a low shot across Wojciech Szczesny’s body, a goal that gave Sweden welcome wiggle room at the top of the table with Spain soon to be in the driving seat in Seville.
Only a victory would do for Poland, who would dominate possession but not create all that many chances. Those that they did could scarcely have fallen to a better finisher, yet Lewandowski could only hit the crossbar twice when he rose to meet a corner from the right. Had Kamil Jozwiak shouted for him to leave the second attempt the Poles might have had their equalizer.
Instead, Sweden held firm and took what chances came their way, Dejan Kulusevski leading the breakaway with half an hour remaining before squaring for Forsberg to net his third of the tournament from the edge of the box.
Lewandowski gave Poland a slither of light, a one-man break down the left before opening his body and curling the ball into the far corner. With six minutes to go there was more than hope to their cause as the Swedish center back pairing of Victor Lindelof and Marcus Danielson, imperious for much of this match, chased the same Przemesylaw Frankowski cross. They hopelessly misjudged the flight but Lewandowksi did not as he rolled a shot under Robin Olsen’s chest.
When the ball did not come to him in the box, Poland’s No. 9 instead turned provider, bending one dangerous cross just beyond the far post. Yet too often in this game and this tournament it has felt like the Bayern Munich striker against the world. Even a Ballon d’Or winner cannot carry such a heavy burden. Instead, Poland found themselves undone as they chased the winner they needed late on, Kulusevski once more leading the breakaway that ended with Claesson sending Szczesny the wrong way and setting up a likely round of 16 tie with the Czech Republic for Sweden. Poland, meanwhile, still have just one knockout win to their name from the Lewandowski era. He needs more around him.