Group E came to an exciting climax on Wednesday as Sweden and Spain secured their spot in the Euro 2020 last-16.
Spain got their first win of the tournament, beating Slovakia 5-0, while Sweden sealed first place with a 3-2 victory over Poland.
But who were the heroes and the villains of the day?
Winner: Pablo Sarabia
When Spain’s starting XI was announced around 75 minutes before kick-off, Pablo Sarabia came in for criticism.
It wasn’t anything too personal, but fans had highlighted his involvement from the start as a key indicator of Spain’s recent demise – picked ahead of Dani Olmo, Ferran Torres and Mikel Oyarzabal despite rarely playing for Paris Saint-Germain in 2020/21. But the winger shut his critics up big time.
Sarabia was excellent on Spain’s right flank this evening, able to get forward without a care, knowing Cesar Azpilicueta was behind him to cover defensively and help in attack. And he capped off the performance with roles in three of Spain’s four goals. Spain’s first goal wasn’t really down to Sarabia (more on that in a bit) but it was his shot going close that led to his side going ahead.
The PSG man did build on the confidence on that shot and got his goal in the second half to put Spain 3-0 up. It wasn’t the most technical of goal, but Sarabia showed good positioning to get himself into the box to tap in Jordi Alba’s cross, something Spain had been missing in their previous two matches.
Sarabia then worked well with Koke and Pedri from a short corner to set up Torres who scored Spain’s fourth, running towards the byline before neatly cutting it across goal. Sarabia played the full 90 minutes so wasn’t afforded a standing ovation, but he deserved one.
Loser: Martin Dubravka
Slovakia’s game against Spain started so well for goalkeeper Martin Dubravka as he saved an early penalty from Alvaro Morata to keep his team in control of their destiny. But that would be the peak of his match as everything went downhill from there.
Firstly, Dubravka scored the own goal to end all goalkeeper own goals, one that will be replayed on all the YouTube funny football highlight reels until a new platform comes along to replace that (just as YouTube replaced own goals and gaffes DVDs and VHSs).
Spain were in control of the game and looking to finally make it count when Sarabia sent a shot from the edge of the area crashing against the crossbar. The ball bounced upwards from the crossbar and looked to be dropping dangerously back into the box – though nothing a goalkeeper wouldn’t be able to deal with. Dubravka had everything under control and was aiming to tip it over the bar on the way back down to concede the corner and organise his defence. But instead of tapping it to safety, Dubravka palmed the ball into his own net.
"As goalkeeping errors go, that is a 𝐡𝐨𝐰𝐥𝐞𝐫." 😳
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 23, 2021
But Dubravka wasn’t done there, as he was caught out for Spain’s second just before half-time. Slovakia had only half-cleared a corner and Pedri put the ball back into the area, lifting it over the Slovakian defence. Gerard Moreno was the recipient, beating Dubravka to the ball and leaving the Newcastle shot-stopper in an awkward position.
Dubravka was unable to correct his positioning as Moreno dinked the ball towards the back post for Aymeric to head in his first Spain goal. That goal was the killer for Slovakia too, as it essentially put them out of the competition, guaranteed to be one of the worst two third-placed finishers (though goals three, four and five confirmed it).
Winner: Dejan Kulusevski
Sweden went into Wednesday having already qualified for the last-16, the only Group E side to know their fate, but they still needed to beat Poland to guarantee themselves top spot and a potentially favourable tie.
Although they were made to work for it in the end, Sweden got the job done thanks to Juventus man Dejan Kulusevski. Emil Forsberg did give Sweden a very early lead, netting after just 81 seconds, the second-fasted goal ever scored from the start of a European Championship match, but the game-changing moment came in the second half.
As Sweden looked to tighten their grip on top spot, Kulusevski was brought on for Robin Quaison 10 minutes into the second half and didn’t take long to make his mark, setting up Forsberg’s second – which looked to have Sweden in firm control.
And then Robert Lewandowski happened, scoring twice to drop Sweden down to second in the as-in-stood table and on course to face Croatia in the last-16.
But Kulusevski stepped up when Sweden needed him again, recording his second assist of the game by setting up Viktor Claesson’s winner with a lovely reserve pass as Poland were stretched. If that doesn’t make a case for Kulusevski to start against Croatia, nothing will.
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Loser: Robert Lewandowski
Let’s make it clear, Robert Lewandowski isn’t a loser for his own performance. He ends Euro 2020 with three goals and gave Poland a chance of reaching the last-16 in dragging them back against Sweden.
Lewandowski is a loser because he has been let down by those around him. Poland were never expected to win the competition, but there were hopes that Lewandowski could inspire them to a good run en route to winning the Ballon d’Or later this year – an award many expect to be swayed by the international tournaments this summer.
#POL in their last three European Championship group stages:
Robert Lewandowski scores, Poland knocked out
Robert Lewandowski doesn’t score, Poland progress#EURO2020
Robert Lewandowski scores three, Poland get knocked out
Cursed. 😩 pic.twitter.com/GJl46zSOYU
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 23, 2021
But Lewandowski’s Euro 2020 (and potentially his Ballon d’Or hopes) end at the group stage, as Poland just didn’t create enough for him across the three matches. Sure, there were some big misses from Lewandowski including one against Sweden in the first half, but the man can’t do things alone. And now Paulo Sousa must start to plan for life after Lewandowski, or Poland will be in big trouble when the striker eventually retires.
Winner: Sergio Busquets
As a unit, Spain were excellent against Slovakia, finally looking close to fulfilling the potential that this squad has. And it’s no surprise to see that happen in Sergio Busquets’ first game at Euro 2020.
After missing Spain’s opening two matches, Busquets started against Slovakia on Wednesday as the deepest player in their three-man midfield. It was a trademark Busquets performance to see Spain into the last-16, bringing so much to the side both on and off the ball.
Although he isn’t a defensive midfielder in the literal sense of the role, Busquets’ tendency to sit deeper to protect the backline helped free up Koke and Pedri to move further up the pitch. Pedri in particular excelled as a result of this, playing a part in the build up to three of Spain’s five goals.
With Busquets in the side Spain had organisation and a player that was capable of providing the crucial link between defence and midfield, ensuring their possession was not wasted as it was against Sweden and Poland. There are some who do not see the quality Busquets has, and what he brings to a team. But he has reinforced his importance for Luis Enrique in Spain at Euro 2020 both while on the pitch and when unavailable.
— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) June 23, 2021
Loser: Slovakia’s defending
Although Dubravka was at fault for Spain’s first two goals, an inquest into Slovakia’s defence has to come, as they fell apart in the final game of the group stage. You wouldn’t have thought it, but Slovakia actually went into their game against Spain in control of their destiny, needing only a point to reach the last-16.
That’s because, even if they had drawn and Poland beat Sweden, they would finish ahead of the Poles thanks to their 2-1 win in the opening match. Slovakia were excellent then, and with three points you’d have expected them to still qualify for the last-16, even as one of the best third-placed teams.
But they were poor against Sweden and even worse when they took on Spain. Although Spain should be praise for their work on the ball, Slovakia allowed them so many easy opportunities to add to the two goals they were gifted in the first half. Even at 2-0 down Slovakia still had a chance, needing just one goal to keep them in contention as one of the best third-placed teams.
Instead, Slovakia’s defence (and the rest of the team to be honest) will be travelling home and need to take a look at themselves to see what needs to change.
Slovakia’s humiliating loss was Ukraine’s gain as their spot in the last-16 of Euro 2020 was confirmed. Ukraine finished Group C on three points, winning one, drawing one and losing one of their three games, while having a goal difference of -1.
But that negative goal difference is still more than Finland (-2) and Slovakia (-3), so their campaign continues into the weekend.