| Alessandro Del Piero and Simone Perrotta congratulate Antonio Cassano (left), after he scored against Sweden in Porto on Friday. (AFP)
Porto, June 19 (Reuters): Sweden picked themselves up off the floor with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring an astonishing late equaliser to earn a 1-1 draw with Italy on Friday in one of the best matches played so far in Euro 2004 (as briefly reported in Saturday’s Late City edition).
Italy dominated the first hour and deservedly led with a 37th minute header from Antonio Cassano, standing in for key playmaker Francesco Totti — suspended by the Uefa for spitting at Denmark’s Christian Poulsen in their opening group C match.
But Italy gradually ran out of steam, took off their attackers and sat back to defend, but in doing so allowed a defiant, skilful and battling Swedish side into the match.
They did not waste the chance and grabbed the point their inventive play merited with a cheeky goal by Ibrahimovic who hooked the ball into the top corner with his back to goal from close-range after a scramble in the area in the 85th minute.
“I scored a lucky goal but it was also an incredible goal, the most beautiful and important goal, especially at a European Championship,” said Ibrahimovic.
Strike partner Henrik Larsson, who toiled all night to try to either score or create an equaliser, added: “It was a great goal Zlatan scored so we’re very pleased with the result. It was very important and such a beautiful goal as well. He thoroughly deserved it, he’s a great player.” The draw sets up a possible three-way tie at the top of the group. Sweden and Denmark both have four points and play each other in their final game in Porto next Tuesday.
If they draw they will both finish with five points, the same number Italy will have if they beat already-eliminated Bulgaria, as expected, in their final match in Guimaraes.
If that happens the determining factor will be the number of goals Sweden and Denmark get. If the Scandinavian rivals play out a 2-2 draw or more, Italy will be out. The Italians only have themselves to blame for allowing such a situation to develop.
They were outstanding against the Swedes for long periods, playing brilliantly in defence, midfield and attack, and should have been more than one goal ahead by the time Sweden equalised. Their only real failure was in front of goal — although Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, who was on Juventus’ books as a youngster, had an inspired match.
Italy took the lead before the break with a header from 21-year-old Antonio Cassano. It was totally deserved after they had attacked for most of a pulsating first half and had five goal attempts from Alessandro del Piero and Christian Vieri before breaking the deadlock eight minutes before halftime.
Christian Panucci, who had an excellent match marauding down the left flank, created the opening with a left-footed in-swinging cross for Cassano who stooped low to glance the ball past Isaksson for his second goal in his fifth international.
The only downside for Italy were bookings for midfielder Gennaro Gattuso and defender Fabio Cannavaro, and both will miss the match against Bulgaria, along with Totti.
With Alessandro Nesta and Cannavaro outstanding at the back and Gianluigi Buffon unbeatable in goal, Italy looked impregnable.
The tireless running of Gattuso and Simone Perrotta in midfield limited Sweden’s options — so much so that Larsson was restricted to watching and waiting and did not have a goal attempt until midway through the second half when he blasted high and wide.
But Fredrik Ljungberg and Christian Wilhelmsson never stopped running and battling and eventually the match began to tip Sweden’s way.
A win would have clinched them a quarter final place, now they have to make sure they earn it against Denmark without defensive midfielder Tobias Linderoth who will be suspended.
At times it looked as though the equaliser would never come, but when it did no one could deny the Swedes deserved it.
Italy (4-3-3): Gianluigi Buffon; Christian Panucci, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta; Gennaro Gattuso (Giuseppe Favalli 76), Andrea Pirlo, Simone Perrotta; Antonio Cassano (Stefano Fiore 70), Alessandro del Piero (Mauro Camoranesi 82), Christian Vieri.
Sweden (4-4-2): Andreas Isaksson; Mikael Nilsson, Olof Mellberg, Andreas Jakobsson, Erik Edman (Marcus Allback 77); Christian Wilhelmsson (Mattias Jonson 67), Tobias Linderoth, Anders Svensson (Kim Kallstrom 55), Fredrik Ljungberg; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsson.
Referee: Urs Meier (Switzerland).