sign of resilience or vulnerability? Maybe both, plus Belgium improving

LEIGH, England — On a wet and cold Friday night in Leigh, it took Sweden — the highest ranked team in Euro 2022 — 92 minutes and 33 shots to score in what was a wholly frustrating evening for them against Belgium, a last-gasp 1-0 win.

Few had given Belgium any chance heading into this game. The 19th-ranked side in the world had been the surprise escapee from Group D with Italy and Iceland both seen as more likely to progress. However, Belgium showed on Friday that they are slippery opponents who know how to hold their shape and frustrate their opposition.

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“We’ve already secured our first objective, which was qualifying for the quarterfinals,” Belgium coach Ives Serneels said ahead of the game. “But that does not mean that now we will not have a fighting mentality. We did not come this far to give it away.”

A fighting mentality was certainly shown by Belgium, but it was Sweden’s inability to make good on their own chances that was a real letdown of the side on the night. It will be a worry for manager Peter Gerhardsson as Sweden look ahead to a semifinal meeting with England, who not only will have had two extra days to prepare but also lead both the team and individual scoring charts.

Things had been looking like business as normal for Sweden in the first half when Kosovare Asllani threaded a pass through to Stina Blackstenius, who beat goalkeeper Nicky Evrard. However, a VAR review said that Blackstenius was offside and the goal was disallowed. Things started to slide downhill for Sweden from there as they lacked any sort of precision in front of goal.

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At halftime, Sweden had 15 shots on goal to Belgium’s one and an expected goals of 1.62 compared to 0.03 for Belgium. Sweden had 20 touches of the ball while attacking Belgium’s penalty area while the latter had had just three. Sweden’s 20 touches and 1.62 xG was the most of any side at that point in the entire tournament — but poor touches and confusion in front of goal saw them not put a single shot past Evrard.

By the end of the game, Sweden had had 33 shots on goal with 10 on target. Evrard had made seven saves (for context, the most saves in any Euros game is 12) and her side had managed just three shots on goal with none on target.

It was fitting, though, that when Sweden’s breakthrough did come, it was through a set piece. Asllani put a cross into the box two minutes into added time which was punched away by Evrard. Her clearance landed only as far as Nathalie Bjorn, who took a shot that was blocked off the line but landed at the feet of Linda Sembrant, who smashed it into the top of the net.

Linda Sembrant broke the deadlock for Sweden after 33 shots and 92 minutes against Belgium in the Euro 2022 quarterfinal. Jan Kruger/Getty Images

It was a messy affair but Sweden will not care for now. The goal marked their fifth from a set piece this tournament, more than any other side.

Perhaps more should have been made of Belgium’s defensive qualities before the game. They had snatched a 1-0 win against Italy and were only beaten 2-1 by group favourites France. Iceland put just one goal past them as well. They went into the knockout stages as the team with the fewest shots on goal and conversely only Finland (84) faced more shots against them (70). By those numbers and as shown in expected goals, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Belgium should have conceded at least eight goals but instead they had only let in three before Friday night.

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A word must be given here to Belgium goalkeeper Evrard who, despite being on the losing side, won Player of the Match for her heroics. This feat seems all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Evrard is a semi-professional footballer who also rents out bouncy castles in her spare time. Having recently just joined Leuven from Gent, her football is her passion but the rental business gives her financial stability. It’s a mad concept for a goalkeeper who just put in the performance she did in the quarterfinals of a major tournament.

“I think Belgium have got a bigger name than they did before the tournament,” Evrard said after the game.

While there may be celebrations for Sweden tonight, a massive test faces them against England. Sweden’s tournament has been ravaged by COVID-19 cases and the quick turnaround may prove even more difficult for them. Captain Magdalena Eriksson admitted she felt like crying after the final whistle went.

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“It feels unbelievable. That was our goal for the day. It wasn’t easy. Belgium made it really difficult,” Eriksson said. “I’m so happy we got the win. I’m so happy for Linda and that we finally got the goal.

“It was really tough. We had to stay mentally really strong. We had to stay positive. We did that. We were going to go until the 94th minute and keep pushing. We’re through and I’m really excited to play in the semifinals.

“So many emotions. I felt the tears coming because I was so happy. It was a frustrating evening. To finally get that relief, oh my God. I’m so proud of all the girls for how hard we fought.”

There will also be some concern over the fitness of Blackstenius, who was down on the ground receiving treatment after the final whistle and had suffered with injuries throughout the tournament. As one of their best attacking options and someone who is familiar with the Women’s Super League, where many of the English players are based, her fitness will be key along with better performances from players like Fridolina Rolfo. England have a strong defence against set pieces in Millie Bright and it seems unlikely they will be able to depend on them in the same way.

One would think that England coach Sarina Wiegman will be rubbing her hands together gleefully after tonight — but it’s never right to count a team like Sweden out. A game-winner after a 92-minute slog to advance to the Euro 2022 semifinal is the latest proof of that.