SEVILLE/SAINT PETERSBURG: Spain finally have lift off at Euro 2020 after a 5-0 hammering of Slovakia yesterday sent them through as runners-up in Group E, with Croatia their opponents in the last 16 on Monday. Luis Enrique described his team as a bottle of cava about to be popped and they certainly exploded in Seville, where a scoring frenzy felt cathartic and could yet prove transformative for their chances in the knock-out stages.
Spain were even about to progress as group winners until Viktor Claesson scored in the 94th minute against Poland to secure top spot for Sweden. Slovakia finish third and are out. After two tension-filled draws against Sweden and Poland, Spain were left scrambling to qualify, with Luis Enrique admitting he would have taken any position in the group as long as it meant going through.
But Spain ran riot at La Cartuja, their early anxiety heightened by Alvaro Morata's missed penalty and then quickly eased by two dreadful mistakes by Slovakia's goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. The first was an own goal that will surely go down as one of the strangest moments of the tournament before another Dubravka error allowed Aymeric Laporte to head in. With the shackles off, Spain let loose in the second half as Pablo Sarabia, Ferran Torres and another own goal from Juraj Kucka confirmed an emphatic win, even if Croatia and Luka Modric will provide a much sterner test next week.
Spain monopolized the ball in the first half but for 30 minutes, it was a familiar story of chances missed and frustration growing. Spain were awarded a penalty as Jakub Hromada went to clear but instead lashed into the leg of Koke. Morata had deferred the spot-kick to Moreno against Poland and this time took charge, only to whip the ball at a comfortable height for Dubravka to palm away to his right. It was the fifth consecutive penalty Spain have missed.
They might have crumbled but instead persevered, even as Sarabia and Pedri both kicked the air before finally Dubravka stepped in to give them a helping hand. Lubomir Satka's scuffed clearance fell straight to Sarabia, whose dipping shot banged against the top of the crossbar and flew upwards. Dubravka was under it and as he tried to flick the dropping ball over his own crossbar, he succeeded only in flapping it into his own net.
Spain breathed a sigh of relief and just before half-time they made it two. Dubravka was again at fault, this time edging out only to see Moreno steer the ball away from him in the area and cross it back in. Laporte did brilliantly to loop his header into the top corner. Slovakia threw Michal Duris and Stanislav Lobotka on at half-time but Spain were liberated and within 10 minutes, it was three. This time, it was not a mistake but a slick move that made it, Jordi Alba pulling back to Sarabia, who steered into the corner.
Morata came off when he might have wanted to stay on and his replacement scored almost with his first touch, Torres applying a superb flick to Sarabia's cross to the front post. It got worse for Slovakia, a scrap in the box resulting in Kucka hacking Pau Torres' header into his own net for a fifth. Spain were briefly top, only for Sweden to snatch a winner.
Meanwhile, Viktor Claesson scored an injury-time winner as Sweden beat Poland 3-2 in Saint Petersburg yesterday to clinch top spot in Group E and knock their opponents out of Euro 2020. Emil Forsberg struck twice, the first coming after just 81 seconds, but Robert Lewandowski's double gave Poland hope of qualifying before Claesson's late goal sent Sweden through as group winners.
Sweden will likely play Ukraine in the last 16 after pipping Spain to first place, with Slovakia exiting alongside Poland following a crushing 5-0 defeat in Seville. Janne Andersson's side, safe in the knowledge they were assured of a place in the next round before kick-off, made a dream start as Forsberg scored for the second game in a row, netting the second-fastest goal in European Championship history.
The RB Leipzig attacker collected a loose ball just outside the Poland area after Kamil Glik flattened Alexander Isak, riding a challenge from Kamil Jozwiak before firing into the far corner. With Poland needing victory to avoid elimination Lewandowski hit the crossbar twice in a matter of seconds, incredibly failing to convert his own rebound from point-blank range after connecting with Piotr Zielinski's corner.
Zielinski forced Robin Olsen into a pair of flying saves with shots from distance either side of half-time, with the Sweden goalkeeper also making a fine stop from Grzegorz Krychowiak's long-range shot. Juventus winger Dejan Kulusevski came on 10 minutes into the second half for his first appearance after testing positive for COVID-19 just before the tournament.
His driving run and pass set up Forsberg to curl in Sweden's second on 59 minutes, but Poland responded to set up a thrilling finish. Lewandowski halved the deficit with a brilliant solo effort on 61 minutes, bending into the top corner to become his country's all-time leading scorer at the tournament.
Poland had not scored more than once in any of their previous 13 matches at the finals, but Lewandowski took advantage of confusion between Victor Lindelof and Marcus Danielson to equalize six minutes from time. As Poland desperately pushed for a winner, Sweden snatched all three points right at the death when Kulusevski played in fellow substitute Claesson to slot beyond Wojciech Szczesny. - AFP