Sweden earned a deserved victory over South Korea in their opening FIFA World Cup clash at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, courtesy of Andreas Granqvist’s second half penalty. But for the heroics of the Korean goalkeeper, the Swedes’ victory would have been far more emphatic.
After Germany’s shock defeat at the hands of Mexico on Sunday, Group F looked wide open, giving the Swedes and the Koreans an ideal opportunity to capitalise on the holders’ failure. Both sides were also looking to make up for disappointing results in their warm-up matches.
The opening exchanges were a little cagey, with plenty of fouls and little fluency from either side. The first presentable opportunity didn’t arrive until the 18th minute, when South Korea captain Kim Young-Gwon was forced to make an excellent saving tackle on Granqvist. Minutes later, Cho Hyun-Woo made a brilliant point-blank save from Marcus Berg after hesitant defending by the Koreans. Ola Toivonen then headed wide from the resulting corner.
The Swedes were starting to dominate the match, showing the kind of cohesion and solidity which had earned them a shock victory over Italy in the qualifying playoffs. Berg had another opportunity but was denied by another superb last-ditch tackle by Kim.
For all Sweden’s superiority, Granqvist was fortunate not to be booked for a cynical challenge in the 31st minute, which thwarted a promising attack. The Koreans began to show greater menace, albeit without creating any clear chances. Berg wasted another opportunity in the 42nd minute, Viktor Claesson’s header was deflected behind in added time, and both sides had unconvincing and unsuccessful penalty shouts.
All in all, the Koreans could consider themselves a little fortunate to be on level terms, after a first half high on endeavour but relatively low on quality from both sides. The Swedes certainly had no one to compare with the absent Zlatan Ibrahimović, while South Korea’s most talented star, Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min, had precious few opportunities to shine.
Both sides made a lively start to the second half, with decent opportunities wasted at both ends – first by Emil Forsberg, then at the other end by Koo Ja-cheol, who fired into the side netting. The Swedes then forced another fine save from Cho, who parried Toivonen’s header from a Sebastian Larsson free kick – before the Koreans stretched the Swedes again and forced two corners in quick succession.
Finally, in the 65th minute, Sweden scored the goal that their superiority deserved – but not before VAR had been used to overturn the referee’s original (and incorrect) decision not to award a penalty. Sweden’s skipper Granqvist emphatically converted the spot kick, which even Cho could do nothing to stop.
The goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of South Korea, and a second Swedish goal looked far likelier than an equaliser, despite a few bright moments from the Koreans. The Swedes were surely more worried by the sight of Larsson limping off injured in the 80th minute than by anything their opponents could throw at them.
Apart from a few scares in added time, when Hwang Hee-Chan headed wide and Son fired in an awkward low cross, the Swedes held on for a relatively routine – if uninspiring – victory. It was also their first victory in the opening match of a World Cup since 1958 – when the Swedes reached the final.
Things are unlikelier to get any easier for the Koreans, whose next match is against Mexico on Saturday. The Mexicans will no doubt be in bullish mood after their brilliant victory over Germany, who will surely present the Swedes with a far more rigorous test than South Korea – unless, of course, they are as poor against Sweden as they were against Mexico.