The distraught Belgian players search for family and friends standing on the other side of the billboards and crumpled in their arms. The tears that flowed after the final whistle were understandable, the consoling hugs well deserved. They put their all into their country’s first Euro quarter-final appearance but it wasn’t enough. Sweden left him late to secure a semi-final date with England at Bramall Lane on Tuesday.
The highest-ranked team in the tournament needed a 92nd-minute winner to overcome the lowest-ranked team in the competition. Linda Sembrant pounced after Belgian goalkeeper and show star Nicky Evrard again denied Sweden, saving Nathalie Björn’s close-range shot from a Kosovare Asllani corner, only for the defender to find the roof of his net with the rebound.
It was a cruel way to extinguish the dreams of the Red Flames but a deserved victory for Sweden after 34 attempts on goal. Only eight were on target, however, and England will be hugely encouraged by the problems Peter Gerhardsson’s side had in front of goal all night. This was a far cry from the declaration of intent that Sweden had wanted.
“We lacked quality in our final pass and we didn’t create 100% clean scoring chances,” admitted the Swedish coach. “We have to look at that, but the game against England will be completely different. We’ve played England twice and we probably know more about them and how to play against them than we would have against England. Spain, but it will be difficult.
Sweden were without the two full-backs who started the 5-0 win over Portugal, with Hanna Glas and Jonna Andersson testing positive for Covid, prompting a Euro debut for Amanda Nildén and a first tournament start for the winner of the Sembrant match. The disruption contributed to a bit of uncertainty in the Swedish defence, but they dominated on a rainy night and created enough chances to establish a decisive half-time lead. Their inability to take any led Gerhardsson to distraction.
Stina Blackstenius looked certain to open the scoring after Evrard superbly saved Amanda Ilestedt’s header. The ball fell slightly behind the Arsenal striker, who stumbled past an open goal and allowed the Belgium keeper to collect at her feet. Gerhardsson, arms outstretched, gaped at the miss. He would be back when a corner from captain Asllani fell on Blackstenius from two yards out. The striker couldn’t force the ball past Evrard and Belgium got away again.
Björn and fellow central Filippa Angeldal also missed decent openings, although Sweden’s frustration wasn’t just down to their own profligacy. Blackstenius finally appeared to have opened the scoring when he was played by Asllani’s influential defensive pass and beat Evrard with a confident finish. A lengthy VAR review, however, spotted a partial offside and Sweden’s long-awaited celebrations were cut short.
Belgium was not entirely besieged. In Laura De Neve, they boasted an assured centre-back who collected the backline impressively and exuded composure under pressure. Ives Serneels’ side also posed a threat with Tessa Wullaert and Tine De Caigny, whose winner against Italy booked Belgium’s place in the quarter-finals, dangerous on the counterattack. The pair combined to give Justine Vanhaevermaet Belgium’s best chance in the first half, with the player executing a low shot from just wide outside the penalty area.
Sweden remained in control after the break but struggled to break down a well organised, compact and disciplined Belgian side. A process of shooting from distance, many wide or straight at Evrard, showed that patience was being tested.
The Belgian keeper, one of several semi-professionals in the squad unlike the full-time pros throughout the Swedish camp, excelled again when Fridolina Rolfö fired a free-kick deep through goal for Blackstenius, who connected with a powerful diving header. from close. It wasn’t the first time the Arsenal striker watched in despair as Evrard thwarted his efforts with a fine save reaction.
Serneels introduced Elena Dhont to inject more pace and determination into the Belgian attack and the change should have paid off when the substitute broke the right. Sembrant failed to intercept Dhont’s cross ball and De Caigny suddenly found herself in space as she approached the Swedish area. De Caigny seemed caught in two minds as to whether to shoot or cross and was ultimately successful on neither. Dhont was closer when sprinting clear and driving into the side netting from a tight angle. But despite the late flourish and a resilient display, Belgium ultimately fell.
“It’s a difficult moment for us,” said the Belgian coach. “But we should be proud to be here and to play a wonderful match against Sweden. We have a squad of eight professionals. The first thing we should try is to come to the next tournament with 23.”
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