ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Shy, diminutive and without that distinctive ponytail, Emil Forsberg couldn’t be more different than the larger-than-life Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
They share an ability to conjure something out of nothing on a soccer field, though, as Forsberg showed in leading Sweden into the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in 24 years.
Forsberg dropped his shoulder to create space at the edge of the area and scored with a deflected shot to earn the Swedes a 1-0 victory over Switzerland on Tuesday.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” Forsberg said, “and makes me so proud.”
The 26-year-old Forsberg arrived in Russia shouldering much of Sweden’s creative burden following the international retirement of Ibrahimovic, who ruled the national team for more than a decade and is the greatest player the country ever produced.
Forsberg was quiet in the group stage but the attacking midfielder’s skills and slick movement stood out against Switzerland in an otherwise scrappy game between two of Europe’s less-decorated nations.
“He has developed in terms of the holistic approach to his game,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said. “Even if he doesn’t succeed in every dribble, in every part of his game he contributes in so many ways and he has those decisive moments.”
Forsberg didn’t get much power behind his shot and it was likely heading straight for Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer. However, it took a deflection off the foot of center back Manuel Akanji and bounced up and into the net.
Sweden became the fifth European team to reach the quarterfinals and will next play either England or Colombia on Saturday in Samara. Limited but with a highly effective game plan, the Swedes should not be underestimated.
This was another opportunity spurned by the Swiss, who have reached the last 16 in four of their last five appearances at the World Cup only to be eliminated without scoring a goal. They haven’t scored in a knockout game in soccer’s biggest tournament in 64 years, when they last reached in the quarterfinals at home in 1954.
They finished the game with 10 men after right back Michael Lang was sent off in stoppage time for a professional foul on Sweden substitute Martin Olsson. The referee initially awarded a penalty kick but later gave a free kick on the edge of the area after a video review.
Switzerland was fortunate to still be in the match at that point.
Ibrahimovic, now 36 and playing out his illustrious career in the United States, would surely have put away some of the first-half chances created by his countrymen against a fragile Switzerland defense which was missing the suspended Fabian Schaer and Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Striker Marcus Berg was the biggest culprit, spurning two openings in quick succession, while Albin Ekdal volleyed over with the goal at his mercy.
The Swedes were limited but played to the strengths that got them past Italy in the two-leg World Cup playoff and to the top of a group containing defending champion Germany, Mexico and South Korea. Their long balls forward caused panic and they were more bullish in their tackling in midfield.
The Swiss certainly weren’t playing like a team ranked No. 6 in the world and with only one loss in their previous 25 games. Their build-up play was sloppy, with the best effort falling to Remo Freuler with a late header that was saved by Robin Olsen.
“They have done precisely what they’re very good at,” Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic said, “and that might have been enough to beat us.
“When they score a goal, it is always extremely difficult to crack that tough nut.”
The last time Sweden made it this far at the World Cup was in 1994, when the team reached the semifinals.
Sweden right back Mikael Lustig will miss the quarterfinals after collecting his second yellow card of the tournament for a tug on Switzerland striker Josip Drmic in the first half.
The team will have Sebastian Larsson back from a ban, however, and the holding midfielder should go straight back into the starting lineup.
A low-quality match featured some of the worst finishing seen so far at the World Cup, and two efforts stood out.
In the first half, Lustig dragged a long-range attempt sideways and it went out for a throw-in. Then, in the second half, Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka lined up a shot from outside the area and very nearly whiffed.
Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist chose to play even though his wife, Sofie, was due to give birth to the couple’s second child on Tuesday.
In a post on her Instagram page, she said she “told her to stay in the stomach until at least tomorrow!”
Switzerland forward Breel Embolo, who returned home last week to attend the birth of his first child, came on as a second-half substitute.
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