Radja Nainggolan’s magnificent late strike sealed Sweden’s disappointing exit from EURO 2016 and condemned star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to an early retirement after Belgium snatched a late 1-0 victory inside the Allianz Riviera to finish as runners-up in Group E.
The AS Roma ace provided the only bit of quality and magic throughout 90 minutes in Nice, picking his moment perfectly to send the Belgian fans into delirium and break Swedish hearts – rocketing a sublime effort into the top corner with just five minutes remaining.
Marc Wilmot’s Red Devils will now face Group F winners Hungary in the last-16 of the European Championship finals on Sunday in Toulouse.
Sweden boss Erik Hamren decided to drop forward John Guidetti for fellow striker Marcus Berg, who featured alongside the talisman Ibrahimovic – who has already announced he’ll retire from international football after EURO 2016.
Meanwhile Belgium manager Wilmots also made one change to the starting line-up that defeated the Republic of Ireland last time out – with midfielder Nainggolan replacing the injured Mousa Dembele.
After six minutes; it was the nation in yellow that started on the front foot, with Sweden finally registering their first shot on target in this summer’s finals.
A free-kick kindly saw the ball drop to Berg, but his shot was well saved by Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in the Red Devils goal.
Desperate not to allow Wednesday night’s encounter inside the Allianz Riviera be his last in a Swedish shirt, Ibrahimovic was evidently doing everything he could to try and break the deadlock, but centre-half Thomas Vermaelen hooked away a dangerous ball in the 21st minute to prevent him a sight of goal.
Meanwhile for Belgium; Eden Hazard was the man instigating the Red Devils’ attacking threat, threading through Kevin De Bruyne, only for the Manchester City star to fire wide of the mark.
It was fair to say the opening 45 minutes in Nice were far from entertaining; but after Ibrahimovic was once again snubbed from a goalscoring opportunity by a resolute Belgian defence, Wilmot’s side carved out the best chance of the first period.
De Bruyne’s wonderful corner was whipped in towards the far post, but defender Thomas Meunier wasn’t composed enough to beat Andreas Isaksson at his near post from close-range.
After a fairly dull half in Nice; those inside the stadium could only hope for a better start to the second-half, although the lively Ibrahimovic couldn’t quite break his goalscoring duck during these finals just moments after the restart, instead cushioning a header just over the bar.
Albin Ekdal was the next Swede to threaten Courtois in the Belgian goal, but the Hamburg midfielder’s low drive was far too tame to beat the towering shot stopper.
However; just after the hour-mark, the Swedes did have the ball in the back of the net. But unfortunately for the man of the moment, Ibahimovic, his strike was ruled out for an earlier foul.
With just 15 minutes remaining inside the Allianz Riviera; a rather quiet Romelu Lukaku suddenly sprung into life by getting on the end of a long ball forward, only for opposing ‘keeper Isaksson to spread himself well and block his effort on goal.
Then it was Belgium’s turn to hit the back of the net, only for referee Dr. Felix Brych to adjudge Lukaku offside after the Everton striker did eventually beat Isaksson moments later.
With time ticking down slowly; given the game’s drab tempo and lack of goalscoring opportunities, it was clear it was going to take something special to break the deadlock in Nice.
And that is exactly what the recalled Nainggolan delivered! With just five minutes remaining; the Roma midfielder rifled a stunning effort into the top corner to beat an inspired Isaksson – who couldn’t believe his luck.
Man of the Match: Radja Nainggolan (Belgium)
Recently linked with a summer switch to Premier League side Chelsea, you wouldn’t question the motive of incoming boss Antonio Conte given Nainggolan’s remarkable piledriver on Wednesday night.
The 28-year-old’s sublime strike was enough to pick up this accolade alone, especially given the match’s lack of creativity and pace.
The Belgium and AS Roma star will blow a huge sigh of relief after steering the Red Devils to a runners-up spot in Group E, rather than settle for a third-place qualification, in which they would have had to come face-to-face with tournament hosts France in the next round.
Victors Belgium finish as runners-up in Group E, meaning Wilmots’ side will face Hungary in the Round of 16 on Sunday. Meanwhile Sweden bow out of the tournament after registering just one point, finishing rock-bottom in the group stages.