Sweden – Spain (2 Sept 21)

2021 European Apertura Top 25 (6 of 25)

The most exciting game of the September international break was a rematch of Sweden and Spain’s goalless draw in the first round of the group stage from Euro “2020” this past June. In that game, Janne Andersson’s organized and counter-attacking Sweden successfully stymied Luis Enrique’s Spanish side that was already harkening back to the all-conquering Vicente del Bosque teams in terms of possession and passing fluidity. Sweden would go on to win the group, though Spain would advance to the semifinal and prove Italy’s sternest test in the tournament.

This time, the two found themselves paired as favorites in a World Cup qualification group, where 1st place would mean direct qualification rather than a two-legged play-off for the runner-up. Spain seemed ready to write a new script when debutant Carlos Soler—in Spain’s silver medal Olympic side in July and starting the season brilliantly at Valencia—scored off a Jordi Alba cross less than 5’ into the game. But straight after the resulting kick-off, Sergio Busquets mishandled a backpass near the top of Spain’s box, allowing Alexander Isak—a Real Sociedad player—to nip in and score an immediate equalizer.

Spain dominated in terms of possession and shots, though perhaps more tellingly the sides were level in shots on goal. In the end, the difference maker was Dejan Kulusevski, who had missed the opening match of the Euros with a positive Covid test. Just before the hour mark, he recovered a ball in the second phase of a corner kick and spun away from two defenders to find an unmarked Viktor Claesson in the box for Sweden’s go-ahead goal.

Spain responded with a series of changes, first bringing on Adama Traoré and later removing Álvaro Morata to allow Ferran Torres to play as the central striker. But it was Kulusevski who nearly garnered a 2nd assist, playing Isak in one-on-one on a counter that required a brilliant tackle by a recovering Aymeric Laporte to stop.

This was Spain’s first World Cup qualifying loss in 67 games, reaching back to 1993. It left Sweden top of the group with two points and a game in hand. Although Spanish wins against minnows and a Swedish loss to Greece theoretically restored Spain’s top spot by the end of this international break, Sweden’s two games in hand insured that November’s reverse fixture would be a winner-take-all decider. Spain would win that game 1-0; but that they needed to win it was a testament to Sweden’s performance in this game and throughout the group stage. Tactical analysis from: Between the Posts.

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