ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The heir to Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally delivered for Sweden at the World Cup.
Emil Forsberg scored a deflected goal in the 66th minute to give the Swedes a 1-0 victory over Switzerland on Tuesday and a place in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 24 years.
Shy and understated, the 26-year-old Forsberg couldn’t be more different than the larger-than-life Ibrahimovic, who ruled the Sweden team for more than a decade and was the greatest player the country ever produced.
But Forsberg arrived in Russia shouldering the creative burden left by Ibrahimovic following his retirement two years ago, and the attacking midfielder’s skills and slick movement stood out at St. Petersburg Stadium.
His goal was scruffy, though. After getting past Granit Xhaka, Forsberg didn’t get much power behind his shot from the edge of the area and it was likely heading straight for Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer. However, it took a deflection off the foot of centre back Manuel Akanji and bounced up and into the net.
It was enough to make Sweden the fifth European team to reach the quarter-finals. The Swedes will next play either England or Colombia on Saturday in Samara.
The last time Sweden made it this far at the World Cup was in 1994, when the team reached the semifinals.
This was another opportunity spurned by the Swiss, who have reached the last 16 in four of the last five World Cups only to be eliminated without scoring a goal. They haven’t scored in a knockout game in soccer’s biggest tournament in 64 years, when they last reached in the quarter-finals at home in 1954.
They finished the game with 10 men after right back Michael Lang was sent off in stoppage time for a professional foul on Sweden substitute Martin Olsson. The referee initially awarded a penalty kick but later gave a free kick on the edge of the area after a video review.
Switzerland was fortunate to still be alive at that point.
Ibrahimovic, 36 and now playing out his illustrious career in the United States, would surely have put away some of the first-half chances created by his countrymen against a fragile Switzerland defence which was missing the suspended Fabian Schaer and Stephan Lichtsteiner. Striker Marcus Berg was the biggest culprit, spurning two openings in quick succession, while Albin Ekdal volleyed over with the goal at his mercy.
The Swedes were limited but played to the strengths that got them past Italy in the two-leg World Cup playoff and to the top of a group containing defending champion Germany, Mexico and South Korea. Their long balls forward caused panic and they were more bullish in their tackling in midfield.
The Swiss certainly weren’t playing like a team ranked No. 6 in the world and with only one loss in their previous 25 games. Their build-up play was sloppy, with the best effort falling to Remo Freuler with a late header that was saved by Robin Olsen.
Sweden right back Mikael Lustig will miss the quarterfinals after collecting his second yellow card of the tournament for a tug on Josip Drmic in the first half.
The team will have Sebastian Larsson back from a ban, however, and the holding midfielder should go straight back into the starting lineup.
A low-quality match featured some of the worst finishing seen so far at the World Cup, and two efforts stood out.
Lustig dragged a long-range attempt in the first half sideways and it went out for a throw-in. Then, in the second half, Xhaka lined up a shot from outside the area and very nearly whiffed.
There was another success for the video assistant referee. Referee Damir Skomina’s decision to award the late penalty against Lang looked correct at the time, but a review showed Olsson was just outside the box when he was tripped.
It hardly mattered, though. Switzerland didn’t have a chance to get to the other end after the resulting free kick was saved.
Sweden is on the same side of the bracket as Russia and Croatia, whose quarter-final matchup will be played Saturday in Sochi. Uruguay will take on France in Nizhny Novgorod on Friday, the same day Brazil is set to face Belgium in Kazan.
The semifinals will be played on July 10-11. The third-place match is July 14 and the final is July 15.