An unexpectedly long, difficult journey and an increasingly nervous night eventually ended in almost the easiest way imaginable. With four minutes remaining, Álvaro Morata found himself all alone four yards out with the ball at his feet and the Sweden goalkeeper, Robin Olsen, on the ground, free to calmly, almost gently lift in the goal that took Spain to the 2022 World Cup. At last, it was over, for the home side anyway. Sweden will have a second chance to make it to Qatar via the play-offs.
For much the final night of a qualifying campaign that closed with first and second in group B facing each other, it had seemed like Sweden might not need the play-offs. They enjoyed the best chances, putting Spain on a knife-edge. Until Dani Olmo’s thunderous shot crashed off Olsen’s fingers, against the bar and dropped to Morata, La Cartuja erupting. Rafael’s My Grand Night boomed round at the final whistle; it hadn’t been that good, but they had got there. Not since 1974 have Spain missed out but for a while here, that long run felt like it was at risk. Asked what he felt when the goal went in, Olmo replied: “relief”.
This was a straight shootout, the scenario simple for both sides: win and you’ll be at the World Cup, lose and the play-offs await. Although a draw would put Spain through Luis Enrique insisted his players would not seek it. Yet by those final minutes they would have snatched at it. “If we can have 70% of the possession, so much the better,” the Spain coach said, and by half-time the stats said almost exactly that. Which is not to say this was going entirely their way: at that point the two shots that came closest had both been from the mightily impressive Emil Forsberg.
Spain had never lost a World Cup qualifier at home and Seville is home, the chosen location whenever their life is on the line. Over 51,000 people were there, this great white elephant of an arena turned red and yellow. Sweden’s coach Janne Andersson though insisted: “We don’t at all feel we’re defeated before the event” – and they wouldn’t be until the end.
It started with a Pablo Sarabia shot bent just beyond the far post and, with the superb Gavi showing fast feet, Spain led an enjoyable opening. Sweden though lay in wait, Forsberg dashing through the middle to curl fractionally wide after 15 minutes and Unai Simón almost getting caught on the edge of his six-yard box 15 minutes after that. That wouldn’t be the last time the Spain goalkeeper gave this place a collective coronary.
Pau Torres had to be sharp to clear when Alexander Isak and Dejan Kulusevski were breathing down his neck. Then a superb lopping cross from Ludwig Augustinsson found Forsberg six yards out at the far post. His volley flashed wide, the moment that might have meant everything slipping past the post. When César Azpilicueta’s loose pass was picked off by Viktor Claesson early in the second half, Isak shot over where he should have scored.
Something had to give and the game opened a little, Jordi Alba starting to appear on the left. Raúl de Tomás headed a corner past the post before Forsberg swiped at and missed a ball that dropped to him barely five yards out, the decision to remove Kulusevski and Forsberg soon after hard to interpret, implying a desire to protect a draw that would not do. That said, the substitute Mattias Svanberg did almost immediately leap to connect with an ambitious overhead kick and it was natural to respond to the way this had tilted Spain’s way – even if real chances remained few.
Perhaps it was preparatory too, another plan about to be put into place: Zlatan Ibrahimovic was introduced with 20 minutes left. Immediately a chance fell, but to Claesson and he stumbled over a dropping ball deep in the Spanish area. The tension had taken this stadium, everyone on edge when Simón was almost caught by Robin Quaison, then roaring as Morata set off running with five minutes to so. This time his shot was saved by Olsen but not the next time, purgatory persisting a little longer until Spain’s fate fell at Morata’s feet.