In the end it was failure for Poland, but at least it was gallant failure. A campaign that had seemed to be fizzling disappointingly away suddenly came to life in its final 30 minutes as Robert Lewandowski, almost single-handed, inspired a fightback. Poland came from 2-0 down to level, but as they desperately sought the goal that would have taken them through to the last 16, Viktor Claesson snatched the winner for Sweden.
And so Sweden, their air of clinical control shattered in the frantic final minutes, topped the group above Spain and they will play a best third-place team in the last 16 in Glasgow on Tuesday. “It was a rollercoaster,” Claesson said. “It was extremely important that we got the winning goal. That was strong from us.”
Football is a game of infinite variety. Even the oldest and most jaded observer can still be startled by something new, a phenomenon so inconceivable most people had never even dreamed of seeing it. Some had said it was impossible, that it couldn’t happen. There have always been rumours, of course. Wild-eyed travellers claim to have seen evidence. There are murky and unconvincing photographs, blurred and out of focus. Conspiracy theorists insist governments have suppressed conclusive footage. But in St Petersburg on Wednesday it incontrovertibly happened: Sweden finally scored a goal from open play. And having done it once, a little later they got another one. And then, critically, a third.
Poland’s defending was, admittedly, awful for that opening goal – but then they couldn’t have been expecting this. Who goes into a game believing Sweden will come at them? Janne Andersson’s side had had a record low 14.9% possession in drawing 0-0 with Spain. Perhaps even more remarkably, they’d had just 41.9% possession against an incorrigibly negative Slovakia. But here Sweden did not simply set up with their deep-lying banks of four. At least initially, they attacked Poland and, after just 82 seconds, got their reward, the second-fastest goal in the history of the Euros, a smart finish from Emil Forsberg and he and Alexander Isak had bundled through half a dozen tentative challenges.
For Poland, it must have felt horribly familiar. This is what happens to them every time they qualify for a major tournament. They arrive always with some hope, a couple of obviously talented stars and a phalanx of lumbering defenders. Euro 2016, when they lost on penalties to Portugal in the quarter-final, represents the only time they’ve got out of the group at a tournament since the 1986 World Cup.
Fortune seems always somehow to go against them. For all the half-heartedness of the defending for the opener, the ball fell for Forsberg in the end only because it popped up off the ankle of Isak as he rolled having tumbled and over Kamil Jozwiak’s attempt to clear. Then there was the bizarre incident after 17 minutes in which Lewandowski twice headed against the bar in rapid succession and the stumbled over the second rebound three yards out with the goal at his mercy.
Too often in the first half Poland’s ideas seemed to consist of little more than getting the ball to Lewandowski but the introduction of the left-side forward Przemyslaw Frankowski gave them additional options. After the break the game took on something far closer to the anticipated pattern, with Poland probing against a deep-lying Sweden. But the more they pressed, the more open they became and Forsberg clipped a neat second after a surge from the substitute Dejan Kulusevski.
At that the game seemed done, and perhaps Sweden allowed themselves to think so as, perplexingly, they were caught on the break, Lewandowski turning a quarter-chance into a magnificent goal. And then, with six minutes remaining, Lewandowski took down Frankowski’s pass to roll in a second.
One more goal would have taken Poland through, and they had plenty of dangerous possession, but it never came. Sweden resisted some more and the line, just about, held before Claesson seized on Kulusevski’s pass to complete a win that was far more fraught than it had seemed likely to be half an hour earlier.
“It was a crazy start,” said Forsberg. “It meant that they were a little more desperate than us. They created chances, could have scored, and we had a bit of luck. At 2-0, the game should be over, but they equalised, and their goals came a little too easily. But then we got the third, and now it’s just pure happiness.”