Football is known as the beautiful game, but on Tuesday evening, Sweden's women's national team proved that beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder as they booked a place in the final of the Rio 2016 women's football tournament.
Looking at the statistics, you would be surprised to see that the first semi-final, played in the famous Maracana, went to penalties. Over the course of the game, Brazil, the host nation and favourites, had 65 percent of possession, 33 shots on goal and 10 on target.
Sweden manager Pia Sundhage didn't pull any punches, lining her team up exactly the same way she did against the USA.
The game plan was to hold off the waves of yellow attacks and try to steal a goal on the break. They did have their chances, including one for Lotta Schelin as early as the eighth minute.
Nilla Fischer hit her with a long-range pass over the top; the first touch was immaculate, but she couldn't chip Brazil 'keeper Barbara with her second.
Stina Blackstenius started the game up front after her excellent substitute performance against the USA, with Schelin playing in the midfield as Sundhage tried to limit the space allowed to the Brazilians.
The Scandinavians had learned their lesson from the 5-1 group-stage defeat. Sundhage is too experienced to fall for the same mistakes twice.
Criticised by players and fans alike, there is little chance she will be worried about the doubters, especially when her defensive tactics earned her team a place in the gold-medal match.
Brazil had their chances; with 33 shots, that's no surprise. Debinha had a couple, firing over the bar once and seeing a header saved after Tamires' cross. It was Lisa Dahlkvist who went closest for the hosts, very nearly heading Marta’s corner-kick into her own net.
Despite all the pressure, Sweden had the best chances in both the second half and extra time.
Blackstenius, on target against the USA, found herself free in the penalty area but could only fire her shot straight at Barbara. With the game ending 0-0, it was Schelin who went closest after the full-time break, the former Lyon star heading Kosovare Asllani's corner just wide of the far post.
Penalties would decide the game, the same method that saw these two countries advance from the quarter-finals.
Just like against Australia, Brazil blinked first, but this time, it was Cristiane who missed, not Marta. Once again, Barbara saved the hosts, stopping Asllani's spot-kick to keep the scores level.
Andressinha would miss Brazil's second penalty of the shootout, saved by Hedvig Lindahl, but unlike in the quarter-finals, there was no one who could save Vadao’s team.
Lisa Dahlkvist—just like she did against the USA—stepped up and tucked away the winning penalty, securing Sweden's first Olympic women's football medal.
It was not the result that the 70,000 noisy fans wanted from their journey to the Maracana, but as this Swedish team has proved, it's not about how you play but how you win.
As Portugal showed in the 2016 European Championship final this summer, you don't need to play the best football to go all the way. You just need to find a way to get the results. Sweden didn't do that during the group stage, but under Sundhage's guidance, they've turned to a defensive style, and you can't argue with the results.
Limiting the space Brazil had to operate, Sweden reduced the hosts to shots from outside the box and dealt fairly well with everything the South Americans had to offer. When you have a goalkeeper of Lindahl’s class between the posts, any effort from distance would need to be pretty special.
Sweden move on to the final; technically, Sundhage is still defending her 2012 gold medal that she won with the USA. There’s no way she is going to change her tactics now.
Standing in the way of Sweden lifting Olympics gold will be Germany.
The European side beat Canada, 2-0, on Tuesday: Melanie Behringer got her fifth of the tournament from the penalty spot, and Sara Dabritz later completed the job.
Germany will start the final as favourites, not because they have been an outstanding footballing team but because they have proved to be difficult to beat and because of Sweden’s defensive tactics.
Sweden will likely sit deep and soak up even more pressure, but it’s hard to doubt their methods after two successive wins over two of football’s best. It would be brave to bet against them doing the same thing again.
Unfortunately, Brazil’s defeat means they will once again miss out on a gold medal. However, you have to believe that the increased attendances, national pride and performances that have captured the heart of a nation will lead to a stronger domestic game and more rights for the women’s national team.
Brazil is a country that is football mad. But before this tournament, few cared about what direction the women’s game was going.
This Olympics is changing perceptions and helping Brazilians become interested in their own team. Also, they have attracted a new kind of fan to the stadiums, as reserve 'keeper Aline Reis said after the shootout defeat, per Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated:
The coolest thing is it’s not only the typical soccer fan that’s supporting us.
We have senior citizens, women of all ages watching us and sending us messages, wanting to take pictures with us. So I think that’s the biggest accomplishment we can have, even more important than a gold medal.
We want to change the face of women’s soccer in Brazil. And if we can continue to do that through the media and the soccer that we’re playing on the field, that’s our biggest accomplishment.
Canada’s Run Stopped by Efficient Germans
Germany’s 2-0 win over Canada in Brasilia has set up an all-European gold-medal match in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
Kadeisha Buchanan made an untimely challenge on Alexandra Popp, and Behringer picked up her fifth of the tournament, firing a 21st-minute penalty past Stephanie Labbe.
Just before the hour mark, the game was all but over, as Dabritz fired a low shot from the edge of the penalty box after good work from Anja Mittag.
Almuth Schult became the hero with fewer than 15 minutes to go, saving a close-range effort from Diana Matheson. That stopped the Canucks from fighting their way back into the game, and Germany would hold out for the two-goal victory.
On paper, the game isn’t set to be one for the casual fans. It will be tactical, and the pace won’t be high, but one team will go home with gold draped around its neck. That, surely, is all that matters.