Spain suffered their first World Cup qualifying defeat since 1993 as they were beaten 2-1 by Sweden at the Friends Arena, ending La Roja’s 66-match unbeaten streak in qualifiers.
The two sides drew 0-0 during Euro 2020 but in front of a vibrant home support, Sweden were far more of a threat going forward this time, with star duo Dejan Kulusevski and Alexander Isak playing decisive roles.
Isak got the swift equaliser after Carlos Soler netted a debut goal early on in a largely enjoyable but undramatic first half.
The second period was considerably more exhilarating, and it was fine work by Kulusevski that created Viktor Claesson’s winner, which leaves Sweden top of the group with nine points, two clear of Spain who have also played a game more.
Soler’s international career was less than four minutes old when he turned in Jordi Alba’s pinpoint delivery at the end of a flowing move, but their lead lasted only 63 seconds.
An error by Soler in the Spain midfield allowed Isak to seize possession and he clinically found the bottom-right corner from 20 yards.
Spain predictably dominated possession but did not create any other clear-cut chances before the break, while at the other end they needed Unai Simon alert as he blocked Kulusevski’s effort from a tight angle in the 36th minute.
Sweden had a lucky escape just after the restart, Robin Olsen saving from point-blank range when Filip Helander diverted a Cesar Azpilicueta cross towards his own goal.
They soon made the most of that let-off by going 2-1 up.
Kulusevski beat Eric Garcia on the left and pulled a wonderful pass back to the centre of the box for Claesson, whose disguised finish found the bottom-left corner.
Spain piled the pressure on in the final stages, substitute Adama Traore particularly lively on the right, but ultimately Sweden held on for a deserved victory.
[21:55] Ryan Benson and embed code for that:
1 – Spain have suffered their first defeat in a World Cup qualifying match since March 1993 against Denmark (1-0), ending a sequence of 66 qualifying matches unbeaten (W52 D14). Shock. pic.twitter.com/VdGcPWK4Ih
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 2, 2021
What does it mean? A familiar story for La Roja
Spain had 75 per cent of the ball over the course of the match, but in front of goal they were largely unimpressive. That was the main takeaway from Euro 2020, because, aside from the thrashing of a dreadful Slovakia and a freak win over Croatia, their tournament was mostly defined by a lack of potency in front of goal.
Here they chalked up an expected goals tally of 2.2 compared to Sweden’s 0.65, yet the hosts were the ones who were clinical in the box – the efforts from Isak and Claesson both had xG values of 0.04, which equates to a four per cent chance of scoring.
Perhaps Sweden got lucky – or maybe Spain could learn a thing or two from their decisiveness.
Kulusevski stretches Spain
Sweden did not exactly create a stack of chances, but on the rare occasions they sprung counterattacks, the pace and ability of their forwards clearly worried the Spanish defence. Kulusevski was central to that, as demonstrated by his assist for Claesson, another cut-back that did not quite reach its intended target, and an excellent pass that released Isak late on.
Isak did not make the most of the chance in the closing stages, failing to get a shot away, but that move underlined just how good Kulusevski can be – carrying such a threat despite being under pressure for much of the game is a great habit to get into.
Moreno-where to be seen
Neither of Spain’s forwards covered themselves in glory, though Alvaro Morata was a little livelier than Gerard Moreno.
The Villarreal star did not manage a single shot or key pass in 64 minutes on the pitch, whereas at least his strike partner had a couple of efforts. Moreno endured a difficult Euro 2020, failing to score from 16 shots, and he was no better here.
Spain return home to host Georgia in Badajoz on Sunday and will be expected to bounce back immediately. Sweden face Uzbekistan in a friendly the same day, before looking to make it four wins from four in qualifying three days later when they go away to Greece.
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