The final match of the opening round of fixtures proved to be the most exciting match of Euro 2012 thus far. The matchup between Sweden and Ukraine lacked the hype that England vs. France had received earlier in the day, but made up for it with excitement, drama, and some spectacular goals. Coming into Euro 2012, Ukraine was expected to be one of the weakest sides in the competition and many were worried that the co-hosts would embarrass themselves. However, the intensity of the home crowd and the forehead of Andrei Shevchenko have the co-hosts hoping for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Both teams took the field, utilizing 4-4-2 formations, with their talismanic strikers featuring prominently at the front of the attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked very strong early in the match, holding off defenders allowing his teammates to get into position. His efforts were nearly rewarded in the 17th minute when Zlatan’s cross nearly found Sebastian Larsson, but a punch from Ukrainian keeper Andriy Pyatov thwarted the chance.
Ukraine had a scoring opportunity a few minutes later when Andrei Shevchenko was played in on goal, but the veteran striker’s finishing touch betrayed him and his effort was yanked wide of the Swedish goal.
Ukrainian manager Oleg Blokhin threw up his arms in frustration at his captain’s missed opportunity and the
miss prompted criticism over Shevchenko’s inclusion on social media sites. Shevchenko, oblivious to the electronic criticism, raised his work rate and continued finding open positions in the Ukrainian attack. His continued effort after a blocked shot led to a shooting opportunity for Andriy Yarmolenko, but the midfielder was unable to lift his shot over the sliding Swedish defender Granqvist.
Sweden responded with a quick attack that nearly earned them a goal. Rasmus Elm played a majestic cross across the penalty area to a wide open Zlatan. The Swedish captain met the ball solidly with his forehead and almost began celebrating before his header struck the outside of the post and rolled out for a goal kick. It was Sweden’s best scoring opportunity yet and it was just inches away from putting them ahead. The halftime whistle blew just a couple minutes later and the teams went into the dressing room level.
The action picked up after the restart and it took only seven minutes for Sweden to find a breakthrough. Taking advantage of the injured Yevgen Selin, Sweden broke down the vacant left flank and a combination of passes eventually led to an easy tap in goal for their captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The goal silenced the home crowd, while the Swedish contingent roared their approval.
Ukraine took only three minutes to respond, Andriy Yarmolenko found Shevchenko streaking across the front of goal and the captain answered the call with a soaring header that beat Andreas Isaksson. Shevchenko had atoned for his earlier miss by rejuvenating the home crowd and giving the host nation hope of accomplishing an unexpected result. As his teammates dog-piled on the captain in celebration they returned to the center circle with a renewed sense of determination. This goal earned Shevchenko the honor of being the oldest player ever to score at the European Championship, but he was not done for the day.
Shevchenko’s best was yet to come as he ignited the passion of the home crowd once again just six minutes later. Shevchenko looped around Zlatan and met Evegeni Konoplyanka’s corner kick with a flicked header that eluded the near post defender and went into the back of the net. The home crowd exploded with joy as their beleaguered, beloved hero had given them the victory they desperately sought. It was an incredible moment and certainly the most captivating event of Euro 2012 thus far.
The final minutes of the match consisted of Sweden desperately trying to recover to salvage a draw. Zlatan unleashed a furious effort towards the goal that was turned aside by Pyatov. There were several more opportunities, the best of which fell to substitute striker Johan Elmander after exchanging passes with Ibrahimovic, but the Bolton striker skied the eventual effort towards goal. The final whistle sounded just a few minutes later, giving way to wild celebration by the Ukrainian crowd.
This match will be hard to beat in terms of drama. Sweden now will need a result against England if they hope to qualify for the quarterfinals. Ukraine is at the top of Group D for the moment, they will face Italy later in the week, hoping to retain their top spot.