MIYAGI — The 2002 World Cup lost its second pre-tournament favorite in two days Wednesday after Argentina followed France to the airport after drawing 1-1 with Sweden at Miyagi Stadium.
As England drew 0-0 with Nigeria in the afternoon’s other Group F match in Osaka, 45,777 fans saw Sweden top the group and clinch a second-round tie with Senegal in Oita.
Following a superb 59th-minute free-kick from Southampton midfielder Anders Svensson, the game reached boiling point when Argentina snatched a late equalizer from second-half substitute Hernan Crespo in the 88th minute.
Crespo was quickest to react to an Ariel Ortega penalty that had been parried by Swedish ‘keeper Magnus Hedman, firing home the rebound.
In the wake of Crespo’s goal, the group permutations were endless.
If Argentina had managed to net another, Sweden would have been out.
If Nigeria had scored against England, Argentina and England would have had to draw lots for the right to remain in the tournament.
In the end, however, neither of the above came to pass as Sweden managed to hold on despite a late onslaught from Argentina.
“Argentina is one of the best sides in the world so we had to defend well, which we did,” said a visibly relieved Lars Lagerback, Sweden’s joint coach.
“After we scored, Argentina put a lot of pressure on us and (Magnus) Hedman had to make a few good saves. We were a bit lucky today but that is football.
“Its fantastic we won the group as it also means that we have an extra day’s break before our Round of 16 game. This is important particularly after a game like today’s.”
Argentina dropped captain and midfield playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron from its side after a couple of disappointing performances against Nigeria and England, opting instead for the creative qualities of Valencia midfielder Pablo Aimar.
With one of the world’s most expensive strikers, Crespo, also warming the bench, Argentina boasted a substitutes roster that would have made a very competitive World Cup starting lineup.
Midfield hardman Diego Simeone was another notable absentee from the starting lineup, Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa perhaps reluctant to risk a player who was one yellow card away from an automatic suspension.
Sweden had problems of a different kind with two of its key players, Barcelona defender Patrik Andersson and Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, sidelined with injuries.
Argentina started the game on the offensive, clearly mindful that it needed a win or the unlikely scenario of a two-goal England defeat to avoid joining Nigeria in the “Group of Death” graveyard.
Sweden, needing only a draw to secure a berth in the last 16, appeared content to sit back and let Argentina do the running, employing a tight man-marking system and hoping to catch the Argentines on the counterattack.
In the first half, Argentina did everything but score in a captivating display of cohesive total soccer.
With no clear distinction between its midfield and attack, Argentina set about unlocking the Swedish defense with some neat passing and swift changes in the direction of play.
The South Americans lacked a cutting edge up front, however, and failed to break the deadlock.
Ortega and Aimar in particular covered a lot of ground, constantly switching play to Claudio Lopez on the left who was guilty of wasting a number of half chances.
First-half injury time saw referee Ali Bujsaim of the United Arab Emirates brandish a red card that, bizarrely, had no numerical impact on the representation on the pitch.
Bujsaim stormed over to the Argentine bench to confront coach Bielsa, only for substitute striker Claudio Caniggia to vent his frustration at the match official and earn himself a red card in the process.
The final 20 minutes of the match saw the players of both teams — barring Argentine ‘keeper Pablo Cavellero — set up camp in the Swedish half.
This left Argentina exposed at the back, giving Swedish substitute Andreas Andersson a clear run into the box. Unfortunately for the Swedes, Andersson’s shot hit the underside of the crossbar with Cavellero well beaten.
Despite Crespo’s late equalizer, however, nothing could stop the fans decked in white and blue crying for Argentina after the game.
Meanwhile, a distraught Bielsa said, “I’m very sad and tremendously disillusioned. Argentina had bad luck, the same bad luck it had against England. We had 20 opportunities on goal, but the ball didn’t go into the net.
“When it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t go in. I feel a great sadness and disappointment. We just did not get what we deserved.”
Argentine scoring legend Gabriel Batistuta had said that a loss in Wednesday’s match would mean the end of his outstanding international career.
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