Sweden vs Poland
Robert Lewandowski is facing another early exit from a major international soccer tournament.
Unless, that is, Poland can find a way past one of the tightest defenses at the European Championship.
Beating Sweden is Poland’s only route to the knockout stage of Euro 2020 — and that’s something no team has managed in seven games in 2021.
Where there is Lewandowski, though, there is hope for Poland.
FIFA’s reigning player of the year recovered from an underwhelming display in Poland’s 2-1 loss to Slovakia in Group E by scoring the equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Spain to effectively keep his team in contention at the tournament.
It was a classic striker’s finish, too, using his strength to hold off his marker, Aymeric Laporte, and directing a header from a cross into the bottom corner for his 67th international goal.
Lewandowski had to feed off scraps against Spain and the same could be the case against Sweden, an ultra-pragmatic team whose attacking ambitions might be even more limited than normal at Saint Petersburg Stadium on Wednesday.
Sweden has four points from its opening two games in Group E — a 0-0 draw against Spain and a 1-0 win over Slovakia — and was assured of qualifying for the round of 16 because of the results of Monday’s games.
A win would secure a first place in the group. Then again, so might a draw.
Sweden is one of three teams yet to concede a goal at Euro 2020, along with Italy and England. Given that stat, and the team’s inclination to defend compactly and in numbers especially when it doesn’t need to attack, it explains why Poland is facing such a tough task.
Lewandowski has only advanced from the group stage once in three appearances at either a World Cup or a European Championship with Poland. That was at Euro 2016, the first time the continental tournament had been expanded to 24 teams.
While 67 goals in 121 games for Poland is a amazing record, the Bayern Munich striker is often starved of quality service at major tournaments when the standard of opposition increases. He has only three goals in 13 games at a World Cup or European Championship.
Poland, which is in last place in the group with one point, could be without defender Jan Bednarek and midfielder Jakub Moder because of injury. They will undergo fitness tests on the day of the game.
Andersson may decide to change his lineup now that qualification is guaranteed, and give some game time to fringe players.
Finishing first remains important to Andersson, though, because that would mean extra rest before a last-16 game in Glasgow.
Dejan Kulusevski could return for Sweden after being left on the bench against Slovakia. The winger had just returned to full training after completing a period of self-isolation after contracting the coronavirus.
Slovakia vs Spain
Spain may summon its most experienced player for its most important match at the European Championship.
Sergio Busquets is set to return for the match against Slovakia on Wednesday, when “La Roja” faces the possibility of an embarrassing elimination in front of its fans.
Only victory for Spain will be enough to ensure a spot in the round of 16 at Euro 2020. A draw may be enough, but only if Poland doesn’t defeat Sweden in the other Group E match. Both games will be played at the same time.
The 32-year-old Busquets, the only player left from Spain’s World Cup-winning squad in 2010, didn’t play in the team’s first two matches after testing positive for the coronavirus. The Barcelona midfielder had to go into isolation and only rejoined the squad on Friday. He did not dress for the game against Poland on Saturday.
Spain coach Luis Enrique didn’t want to risk playing with Busquets in the second match but said he will be available on Saturday along with the rest of his teammates.
Rodri Hernández played in Busquets’ position in the first two matches, a 0-0 draw against Sweden and a 1-1 draw against Poland.
Slovakia coach Stefan Tarkovic said Busquets’ return will be a big boost for Spain.
Azpilicueta himself may be another veteran called upon to help the Spanish squad as it faces elimination. The 31-year-old Chelsea right back has yet to play at Euro 2020 as Luis Enrique preferred to use Marcos Llorente in the position.
Jordi Alba had taken over as captain in the absence of Busquets. The national team’s longtime captain, Sergio Ramos, was not called up after playing sparingly in the final part of the season with Real Madrid because of injuries. The decision to leave him out of the squad even though he would have been fit to play by the time Euro 2020 started drew a lot of criticism against Luis Enrique, with many saying the team was left without a true leader.
Spain, playing all of its group matches in Seville, is two points behind leader Sweden and one behind Slovakia, which surprised with an opening 2-1 win over last-place Poland before losing to Sweden 1-0.
Slovakia needs a draw to guarantee its spot in the next round. It is making its second consecutive appearance after debuting at Euro 2016. Both Slovakia and Spain were eliminated in the round of 16 in 2016. Spain last missed the knockout round in 2004.
Slovakia hopes to stun Spain again like it did in 2014 by ending “La Roja’s” 36-match unbeaten run in qualifying for a European Championship or a World Cup.
It remains unclear what kind of support Spain will receive from its fans at La Cartuja Stadium after a video of players ignoring fans at the team hotel last weekend was widely shared online. The crowd remained supportive when the team arrived at the hotel on Tuesday, when players were constantly waving as they passed by.
There is also uncertainty about the field conditions at La Cartuja, which prompted complaints by some players after the first two matches.