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 top-placed team at Euro 2022 – 92 minutes and 33 shots to score a last-gasp 1-0 against Belgium in what was a utterly frustrating evening for them -Victory.

Few had given Belgium a chance to go into this game. World No. 19 was the surprise escape from Group D, with Italy and Iceland both seen as more likely to progress. However, Belgium showed on Friday they are slippery opponents who know how to keep their form and frustrate their opponents.

“We have already achieved our first goal, which is to qualify for the quarter-finals,” said Belgium coach Ives Serneels before the game. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t have a fight mentality now. We didn’t come this far to betray them.”

Belgium certainly showed a fighting mentality but it was the Swedes’ inability to convert their own chances that really disappointed the team that night. Coach Peter Gerhardsson will be worried as Sweden face a semi-final against England, who not only have two extra days to prepare but also top both team and individual goalscorers’ lists.

Things looked normal for Sweden in the first half as Kosovare Asllani threaded a through ball to Stina Blackstenius, who defeated goalkeeper Nicky Evrard. However, a VAR check said Blackstenius was ruled offside and the goal disallowed. It was all downhill for Sweden from there, as they lacked any precision in front of goal.

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At half-time, Sweden had 15 shots on Belgium and an expected score of 1.62 compared to 0.03 for Belgium. Sweden had 20 touches when attacking Belgium’s penalty area, while Belgium only had three. Sweden’s 20 touches and 1.62 xG were the most of any team in the entire tournament at this point – but poor touches and confusion in front of goal meant they couldn’t get a single shot past Evrard.

By the end of the game, Sweden had had 33 shots on target, 10 of them on target. Evrard had made seven saves (for context, most saves in a Euro game are 12) and her side had only managed three shots on target without going on target.

It was fitting, however, that Sweden’s breakthrough came from a set piece. Asllani put in a cross into the box two minutes after added time, which Evrard punched away. Her clearance only landed until Nathalie Bjorn, who fired a shot that was blocked by the line but landed at the feet of Linda Sembrant, who smashed it into the top of the net.

It was a messy affair, but Sweden won’t care now. The goal marked the fifth goal from a set piece in the tournament, more than any other team.

Maybe we should have paid more attention to Belgium’s defensive qualities before the game. They had beaten Italy 1-0 and only lost 2-1 to group favorites France. Iceland also only managed one goal. They went into the knockout stages as the team with the fewest shots on goal and, conversely, only Finland (84) had more shots saved against them (70). According to those numbers and as shown in the expected goals, Belgium should have conceded at least eight goals according to ESPN Stats & Information, but instead they had conceded just three goals before Friday night.

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A word needs to be given to Belgium goalkeeper Evrard who, despite being on the losing side, was named Player of the Match for her heroic actions. This feat is all the more impressive when you consider that Evrard is a semi-professional soccer player who also rents out bouncy castles in her free time. Having recently joined Leuven from Gent, her passion is football, but the rental business gives her financial stability. It’s a crazy concept for a goalkeeper who has just performed in the quarter-finals of a major tournament.

“I think Belgium has a bigger name than before the tournament,” said Evrard after the game.

While there may be celebrations for Sweden tonight, they face a mighty test against England. The Swedish tournament has been hit with COVID-19 cases and dealing with it quickly could prove even more difficult for them. Captain Magdalena Eriksson admitted she felt like crying after the final whistle.

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

“It was really tough. We had to stay very strong mentally. We had to stay positive. We made it to the semifinals.

“So many emotions. I felt tears coming from being so happy. It was a frustrating evening. Finally getting that relief, oh my god. I’m so proud of all the girls, how hard we fought.”

Also of concern is the fitness of Blackstenius, who was down after the final whistle and receiving treatment, suffering from injuries throughout the tournament. As one of her best attacking options and as someone familiar with the Women’s Super League, where many of the England players live, her fitness will be key alongside better performances from players like Fridolina Rolfo. England have a strong defense against set pieces in Millie Bright and it seems unlikely they can rely on her in the same way.

You’d think England manager Sarina Wiegman would be rubbing her hands happily after tonight – but knocking out a side like Sweden is never right. A game winner after 92 minutes to advance to the semi-finals of Euro 2022 is the latest proof of that.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/uefa-womens-european-championship/story/4704959/swedens-last-gasp-euro-2022-quarterfinal-win-sign-of-resilience-or-vulnerability-maybe-bothplus-belgium-improving sign of resilience or vulnerability? Maybe both, plus Belgium improving

Emma Bowman

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