GLASGOW, Scotland — No side in the last 16 of Euro 2020 was more fortunate to be there than Ukraine. But that didn’t matter. As the final vestiges of the midsummer daylight were just fading over Hampden Park, as the clock ticked toward the third of the three minutes of added time at the end of extra time, Oleksandr Zinchenko measured yet another cross from the left. The delivery was good. Substitute Artem Dovbyk ran on, dived forward and headed powerfully past Robin Olsen. For 20 minutes Sweden, clearly exhausted, had held out with 10 men. But it could not hold on quite long enough for penalties, and so it is Ukraine that will face in England in Rome in Saturday’s quarterfinal following a historic 2–1 victory.
A limp defeat to Austria in Ukraine's final group game, when a draw would have assured it of progress, seemed to have put Andriy Shevchenko's side out. It was saved, though, partly by Slovakia’s profound ineptitude and (more importantly from its point of view given the geopolitical climate) by Russia’s capitulation against Denmark. When the draw was made, Ukraine’s group looked like the weakest in the tournament, and the sides that finished first and second—Netherlands and Austria—had already gone out.
But Ukraine took full advantage of its reprieve. The loss of left winger Oleksandr Zubkov in the first game had unsettled Ukraine. It had struggled to replace him. The experiment with pushing Ruslan Malinovskyi out to the left against North Macedonia and Austria didn’t really work. Shevchenko’s solution was to turn back to the 3-5-2 he had used in a couple pf pre-tournament friendlies. That pushed Zinchenko to left wingback, a slightly unexpected role for a player seen almost as Ukraine’s playmaker. But the wisdom of the switch was apparent after 28 minutes, as he crashed Andriy Yarmolenko’s neat pass into the corner, following a fine switch of play by Mykola Shaparenko, who looked assured in his deeper role.
Sweden had begun relatively brightly, but, overmanned in the middle of midfield and with its center forwards playing 2-v-3, it had struggled to make much headway, and, when it fell behind, it looked a little flat. But then, just before halftime, Emil Forsberg found space 25 yards out and his deflected shot flew past Georgiy Bushchan, making him the first Swede to score in three successive tournament games since Kennet Andersson in 1994.
Sweden’s return from the COVID-19 break was difficult, as it lost six out of eight, but this year its form has been remarkable, winning seven of eight and keeping six clean sheets. Only the return of Zlatan Ibrahimović from international retirement threatened to disrupt its preparations, but he had barely come back into the squad when an injury meant he was back out of it again. Would he have changed much? Perhaps he would have offered them more of a focal point up front in place of either Marcus Berg or Robin Quaison, but the link-up of Alexander Isak, Forsberg and, when available, Dejan Kulusevski, has been effective enough. Certainly the sense from the World Cup was that Sweden was benefitting from playing without the vast gravitational pull of Zlatan’s ego.
Having tested positive for COVID-19 before the tournament, Kulusevski made his first start of the tournament Tuesday. He offers a different threat for the Swedes, making them more fluid in forward areas, but he was largely peripheral here. Almost everything went through Forsberg, who hit the woodwork twice in the second half with curling efforts as he drifted in off the left.
But Ukraine was always a threat, switching play rapidly between the wingbacks. Serhiy Sydochuk had also hit the post after clever interplay between Yarmolenko and right wingback Oleksandr Karavayev. And just as it seemed to be fading, Marcus Danielson lunged at Artem Besedin and was sent off upon VAR review, a play on the ball resulting in a stud mis-shaping Besedin's knee. The momentum of the game, which had seemed to be tipping Sweden’s way, switched back in the other direction.
For Sweden, the familiar two banks of four remained, but with just one forward. Perhaps then Zlatan would have given it something extra. But the discipline of the side could not be faulted. It endured and endured. Penalties seemed certain. And then another one of those switches of play brought another opportunity and with it the second-latest goal in European Championship history.
As the ball hit the net, Swedes crumpled. Ukrainians writhed in delight. A large shaven-headed topless man ran onto the pitch before collapsing in ecstasy. A week ago, Ukraine seemed on its way out of the competition, but now it is in a major quarterfinal for just the second time ever, and the first since the 2006 World Cup. In this tournament of surprises and drama at just about every turn, Ukraine saved one for the last gasp of an unforgettable knockout round.
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