Emil Forsberg penalty gives Sweden slender win over stubborn Slovakia

An intriguing tactical battle, a slow-burning minor classic, an enthralling game of subtly shifting patterns … who are we kidding? This was dreadful, the worst match of the tournament so far by some margin. But in the end, Sweden will not be bothered by that. Against opponents devoid of intent or quality, an improved second-half performance brought a penalty and a winner from Emil Forsberg.

Four points may be enough already to secure Sweden’s passage to the last 16, but for Slovakia there must be a sense of an opportunity squandered. They will probably now need at least a draw against Spain if they are to make it through – and for that they have only themselves to blame. “Neither of the teams wanted to open up,” said the Slovakia manager, Stefan Tarkovic, which was an understatement.

He insisted his side were “delighted to be playing against the European elite”, pointing out Slovakia are 36th in the Fifa rankings and Sweden 18th. That perhaps explains Slovakia’s negativity, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it was self-defeating. Tarkovic seemed oddly pleased his side had avoided conceding from open play, and that they had some shots (six), albeit none on target.

Given the caution of both sides in their first games, there was a danger this game would become a game of chicken, the ball sitting alone on the centre spot while the two teams waited, daring each other to flinch and make the first move. It wasn’t quite that uneventful for the first hour, but it wasn’t far off – and at least if neither side had touched the ball at all it would have been a talking point.

In a tournament that has been characterised so far by relatively entertaining football, this was a throwback to the worst of France five years ago, when the trend was for deep-lying defences and the mood one of caution. For a long time, nothing happened. Nothing kept happening, over and over again. And then nothing happened some more. Even when Robin Olsen made a reflex save from a Juraj Kucka header, it was offside.

Neither of Slovakia’s two central forwards, Marek Hamsik and Ondrej Duda, are orthodox strikers, both players who naturally drop deep or pull wide. That could have created interesting angles and possibilities, but there is little point making space if there is nobody to break into it. Martin Koscelnik on the right is a converted full-back, while Robert Mak likes the ball to feet rather than somebody who would naturally run in beyond the last man.

To earn a point with a touch under 15% possession, as Sweden did in that first game, is an achievement, and there is something admirable a bloodymindedness that forced Spain into self-parody. But it is one thing to do that against dominant opponents who can be lured into the trap, quite another to do it against a side so rigid in its 4-4-2 that there are table football teams that look fluid by comparison.

“We were much better in the second half,” said the Sweden coach, Janne Andersson. “We were winning challenges and were more precise in the way we were playing. We should have got another goal, rather than being stressed by the 1-0 lead. I think we showed the way we want to play in the second half.”

Every now and again, Sebastian Larsson wound up his 36-year-old right foot to whip in an awkward delivery. From one cross on the hour Ludwig Augustinsson drew a fine save from Martin Dubravka. Too often, though, the delivery was poor and there was rarely anybody in the box to take advantage anyway. This, it was all too easy to a remember, is a side for whom nobody had more shots on target on the group stage five years ago than the Republic of Ireland’s Ciaran Clark.

But finally, in the final half hour, Sweden did begin to exert some pressure. Alexander Isak forced Dubravka into a sharp save at his near post after a dart in from the left with 19 minutes to go, and then, at last, six minutes later, the substitute Robin Quaison burst through and was felled by Dubravka. Forsberg converted without fuss.

Could Slovakia raise themselves to force an equaliser? They could not. They are a drab team and they lost drably.