Luis Enrique, in the run-up to the final group stage match, had compared his team to a bottle of champagne: waiting to pop. They popped, and how!
As far as the final day of the group stages go, Group E surely kept the fans on edge. All four teams: Sweden, Poland, Spain and Slovakia, could have qualified for the round of 16, and 84 seconds after the start Sweden got one step closer to their aim. Veteran player Emil Forsberg scored and Poland’s task got just a little harder. But all the news was coming from the other match.
Within a few minutes, it became clear that Spain would continue attacking as they had done in their previous matches. Frankly speaking, Slovakia seemed far less interested in playing football and made little or no effort to move the ball with any intent. In the 10th minute, after a lengthy VAR check, Spain was awarded a penalty and up stepped Alvaro Morata.
Of course, he missed the penalty. Martin Dubravka made an excellent save, although one must point out that Morata’s shot came at a good height for the Slovakian keeper to stretch full length. Dubravka was the Slovakian hero, until now.
What he did next, however, would make everyone forget the save he made. In the 30th minute, Sarabia unleashed a shot that hit the crossbar and sailed high into the sky. As it dropped from the sky, Dubravka leapt and in a move that will remind EPL watchers of that goal by Liverpool’s Divock Origi against Everton. Remember Jordan Pickford’s howler? This was similar. Instead of tapping it over his own bar for a corner or even trying to catch it, he simply palmed it into his own net. Spain finally breathed a sigh of relief: Enrique was smiling, and it looked so far so good for Spain. Morata too must have breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Spain doubled their lead in the first-half injury time when Laporte looped a lovely header into the goal. One could question Dubravka’s positioning here too as he was caught in no man’s land trying to clear the ball. Laporte had his first Spain goal, Dubravka was having a nightmare and Sweden and Spain were set to go through. Slovakia, however, would also go through since Poland remained behind at the end of the first half.
The second half, however, turned into a procession. Slovakia looked hapless as Spain scored three more goals to turn a comfortable win into a rout. So bad was Slovakia that they lost their chance to qualify even as the third best team courtesy their disastrous goal difference of -5.
Poland, thanks to Robert Lewandowski, came back from 2-0 to make it 2-2, but in the 94th minute, Sweden scored again to win the match and top the group. As it turned out, Slovakia and Poland were out of the tournament, and Spain would face Croatia in the last 16. Sweden, as group winners, will play one of the third-place teams.