After the hurly-burly of the Hungary-Portugal game where teams exchanged goals like they were greeting cards, this was not really worth getting to work groggy-eyed on Thursday. Unless you wanted to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a Sweden shirt for one last time.
Here are the five takeaways from the Sweden-Belgium game :
The goal: A right-foot missile from Rajda Nainggolan, the defensive midfielder and not one you would think as a potential goalscorer in a team that has Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. He was out of the frame when Hazard began his run but there he was, with time to control the assist and then let it rip into the side-netting from 25 yards out.
Nainggolan is said to have two wings tattooed on his back in memory of his late mother. The man with the Mohawk sure has helped Belgium wing it to a round-of-16 match against Hungary. And to think he wasn’t even supposed to play if Mousa Dembele was fit!
Courtois’ early save: This was a must-win game for Sweden after their late heartbreak against Italy which, if you believe that not all things around us can be explained, sort of neutralised the lucky point they got against the Republic of Ireland. They had been disappointing but that could have changed had the Belgian goalie not made a reflex save in the fifth minute. The 1.99m goalie got really big on Marcus Berg and produced a reflex save off the striker following Kim Kallstrom’s free-kick.
The Belgian midfield show: Axel Witsel, de Bruyne and Hazard provided the thrust of the Belgian attack. Witsel’s goal against Republic of Ireland had 28 passes being played and summed up all that is right with the world’s No.2 football team.
Witsel again put in a box-to-box Patrick Vieira-like performance though he could have avoided being booked. De Bruyne was not only a key point of attack but also pulled off a goalline save in the 83rd minute when Swedish central defender Andreas Granqvist’s header had beaten Courtois. As for Hazard, well let’s just say Chelsea wouldn’t have finished where they did had this man played the kind of football he did on Wednesday night.
Too much even for Zlatan: It was always going to be difficult for Sweden against a team of such calibre. And it doesn’t help that like Portugal, they depend a lot on one man to get the goals. Zlatan did have his moments, even scored one goal that was ruled illegal, but this wasn’t the first time it seemed that he and his teammates were not on the same page. Cue the pass Berg didn’t pick. It will, however, be the last time this happened.
The Belgian backline:This was said to be Belgium’s achilles heel especially since Vincent Kompany was not around. Well, Toby Alderweireld and company did a fine job of keeping the Swede forwards quiet. Not many teams play two frontliners like Sweden did, most preferring the 4-2-3-1 formation. And not many have Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their ranks. But the Belgian defence put up a solid performance.