After Sweden scored a late winner to top Group E last week – unwittingly helping Ukraine into the last 16 – the pair now clash in Glasgow on Tuesday evening.
With their Euro 2020 campaigns having progressed very differently so far, the final tie of the first knockout round will pit together an in-form Swedish side with decidedly fortunate opponents – who qualified with just three points and a negative goal difference.
Already assured of a place in the knockout stages for the first time since 2004, Sweden snatched a dramatic victory over Poland last Wednesday; beating Spain to first place in a tightly-contested group with their second successive win.
Following their previous defeat of Slovakia, the Swedes squandered a two-goal advantage – with Robert Lewandowski leading a spirited Polish comeback – but substitute Viktor Claesson sealed their sixth straight win over the Eagles and, incidentally, an extra day of rest going into the latter stages.
Currently competing at their sixth successive continental finals, the Blagult’s latest victory may have been only a third from their last 11 outings at the Euros, but it also extended a calendar-year unbeaten run to eight games and counting – demonstrating that Janne Andersson’s squad are not to be underestimated.
As the 2018 World Cup quarter-finalists picked up seven points in a competitive group and find themselves in the ‘weaker’ side of the draw, they may fancy their prospects of progressing yet further should they see off Ukraine, as they seek to emulate – or even surpass – the class of ’92, who memorably reached the semi-finals on home soil.
Leading the current generation’s hopes have been three-goal top scorer Emil Forsberg, of RB Leipzig, enterprising forward Alexander Isak – the youngest player to score a senior international goal for the Nordic nation – and Juventus prospect Dejan Kulusevski, who made an impact from the bench last time out by providing two assists.
With a resolute back four almost a given in all Swedish sides, Andersson’s attacking unit has also managed to meet the collective challenge of covering for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s absence with relative ease so far.
Now, after enjoying a relaxed day off in Gothenburg for Midsummer’s Eve – traditionally an important national holiday – Sweden can turn their full focus to their next encounter, where they must rise to the rare status of favourites.
Perhaps the nation most relieved to still be in the competition, Ukraine endured an anxious wait to discover their fate last Wednesday, as they were ultimately confirmed as only the fourth-best of the third-placed sides at the end of the group stage.
With just three points from as many games, Andriy Shevchenko’s team finished behind the Netherlands and Austria in Group C, but Sweden’s late win helped the Synio-Zhovti qualify for the knockout stage for the first time since independence.
As a result, Ukrainian supporters hung a giant combined Ukraine-Sweden flag in front of the Swedish embassy in Kiev, carrying the message: ‘Thank you, Sweden, for the round of 16.’ However, the side ranked 24th in the world will now attempt to bite the hand that fed them, when the pair battle for the right to meet either England or Germany in the last eight.
The only previous competitive meeting between the two nations carries a special place in Ukrainian hearts, as they marked their Euros debut with a 2-1 win against the Blagult in Kiev, at Euro 2012. On that emotional night at the Olympiyskiy, two icons went head-to-head, as Ibrahimovic struck first for the Swedes, while Shevchenko levelled just three minutes later, before netting a 62nd-minute winner.
However, Ukraine failed to progress from their group on that occasion – and in 2016 they lost each of their three games – so this current outfit have now stumbled onto new ground for a proud football nation.
If they are to take advantage of their good fortune on Tuesday, Shevchenko’s men will again rely on the talents of Atalanta sharp-shooter Ruslan Malinovskyi and their vastly experienced creator-in-chief, Andriy Yarmolenko, whose two goals and one assist so far have helped him to surpass ‘Sheva’ as the national record-holder for goal involvements: his overall tallies now standing at 42 goals and 21 assists.
Sweden European Championship form:
Sweden form (all competitions):
Ukraine European Championship form:
Ukraine form (all competitions):