Kim Young-gwon’s long ball sailed into the Swedish penalty area. The clock had just ticked past 90 minutes, and Sweden were holding on to a one-goal lead against a determined but slightly lacking South Korean team. Now, they were desperately bombing the ball into the penalty area, hoping for something – anything – that could give them a lifeline in the match and the tournament. Kim Young-gwon’s pass found Lee Jae-sung, who managed to get a header back into the centre, where an unmarked Hwang Hee-chan was in a perfect position to grab a late equaliser, or at least test out Swedish keeper Robin Olsen. He did neither. Hwang’s miss came from Korea’s best chance of the match, and put a stopper in any hopes the Taeguk Warriors had of salvaging a point from their disappointing performance. They just weren’t clinical enough on the day.
It was a physical opening, with plenty of rough challenges from both sides leading to an abnormally high foul count and giving Salvadorian referee Joel Aguilar plenty to do. He performed his duties with enthusiasm and intensity, at one point giving a stern talk to Jang Hyun-soo and Marcus Berg complete with animated – and intriguing – hand gestures. In general play, South Korea had much of the early running, but they didn’t create any real chances and soon the Swedes had taken control. Over 15 minutes had passed before the first real chance of the game, when Swedish centre-back Andreas Granqvist ran straight through the middle of South Korea’s defence, played a one-two with Marcus Berg and was only denied by Kim Young-gwon’s last-ditch sliding challenge. Minutes later, Berg had an even better opportunity, but inexperienced goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo made a brilliant save to keep the scores level.Embed from Getty Images
Son Heung-min (right) attempts to keep the ball under pressure from Sebastian Larsson. Son was well-marked during the game, although he did threaten on a couple of occasions.
South Korea gave a glimpse of their counter-attacking threat as the half went on, with Son Heung-min twice finding space on the break and twice being thwarted by Granqvist, who blocked Son’s potentially dangerous cut back on one occasion and, less legally, threw himself in front of Korea’s fast-moving star player on the other. Sweden still had control, however, and had a string of great chances as the half drew to a close. Berg managed to latch onto a lofted ball into the penalty area and put a ball past Cho into a very dangerous spot, but no-one was there to take advantage of the open goal. Seconds later, Ki Sung-yueng’s excellent slide challenge was all that prevented Ola Toivonen from breaking through, and there were more nervous moments as Viktor Claesson nearly headed home in the dying embers of the first period. The half ended, fittingly, with the ball in the hands of Cho, one of the busiest players on the pitch.
Sweden picked up where they left off in the second half, nearly catching South Korea out almost immediately with a quickly taken free-kick. The resultant move gave Emil Forsberg space to shoot, but his effort whistled safely over the bar. More chances came as the game progressed, with one of the biggest thwarted when Kim Young-gwon acted swiftly to clear the ball after Cho did well to parry Toivonen’s header. South Korea had a bit more play than the first half, with Koo Ja-cheol’s header into the side netting causing some nervous moments, but they were still conceding possession and territory. Then, finally, the Swedish broke through. It came from a penalty, created by a slight error from Cho and a much bigger one from replacement left-back Lee Min-woo.Embed from Getty Images
Andreas Granqvist (left) celebrates after opening the scoring during the second half. Granqvist stepped up to take the penalty, and slotted it home coolly.
The opening was created by Cho’s slight mishandling of the ball as he attempted to claim Ludwig Augustinsson’s cross against Berg. The Swedish striker’s positioning made things tough for the Korean keeper, and the fumble gave Viktor Claesson a chance to take the ball in a dangerous position. Then his legs were taken out. Lee Min-woo, only on the field because Park Joo-ho picked up an injury stretching for an errant pass, initially appeared to take the ball, but when replays showed that Claesson had knocked it away before being tripped there was no question surrounding the correct call. The newly-introduced video assistant referee has made its fair share of controversial calls this tournament, but this was not one of them. Granqvist was the man who stepped up to take the penalty, and he stayed calm as he stroked the ball into the bottom corner. If finish was composed, the celebrations were anything but as Granqvist, his face red and animated, charged towards the Swedish fans.
South Korea couldn’t recover. They retook control of territory by pushing higher up the pitch, but Sweden were more than capable of resisting South Korea’s slightly dangerous but ultimately feeble forays into the final third. In the end, Hwang’s chance was their only real opportunity to rectify the deficit, and his miss was a perfect representation of the lack of clinical finishing which cruelled their chances of victory. For Sweden, the win was unspectacular but comfortable, the kind of professional performance they were looking for to start their tournament right.
Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Sweden 1 (Granqvist 65 pen)
South Korea 0
Referee: Joel Aguilar (Slv)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig, Jansson, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson (Svensson 81), Ekdal (Hiljemark 71), Forsberg; Toivonen (Kiese Thelin 77), Berg.
South Korea (4-3-3): Cho Hyun-woo – Lee Yong, Jang Hyun-soo, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho (Kim Min-woo 28); Lee Jae-sung, Ki Sung-yueng, Koo Ja-cheol (Lee Seung-woo 72); Hwang Hee-chan, Kim Shin-wook (Jung Woo-young 67), Son Heung-min.
1. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist was extremely solid at the back, and found his way onto the scoresheet with a perfectly taken penalty. The goal was not his only foray into attack, and his energy on both sides of the ball was a huge bonus for his side. He led by example, and set the tone for Sweden’s composed performance.
2. Cho Hyun-woo (South Korea)
Cho was the least experienced goalkeeper picked in the Korean squad, but he more than justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with an excellent performance. He made some great saves, including a brilliant one-on-one stop to deny Berg, and kept South Korea in the game with his performance.
3. Viktor Claesson (Sweden)
Claesson was everywhere, especially early on in the match. He was a threat inside the box and tested the Koreans with his delivery from the right wing. His determination to hunt the ball all over the pitch will serve him and Sweden well for the rest of the tournament.
4. Kim Young-gwon (South Korea)
Kim saved his side’s blushes on a number of occasions, twice making last-ditch challenges to deny Swedish attackers in dangerous spots and avoiding an awkward situation early in the second half by reacting quickly to a dangerous ball. His defensive work was excellent, and he will be a key player going forward.
5. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
At times, Berg lacked the poise needed to finish from the great positions he found himself in, but his positioning was perfect and if his finishing improves he will be a force to be reckoned with. He was very active throughout, and can make an impact at this tournament.