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Sweden close in on knockouts after Belgium, Netherlands advance

ST PETERSBURG: Sweden took a step towards the last 16 of Euro 2020 with a 1-0 win over Slovakia on Friday, a day after Belgium and the Netherlands punched their tickets to the knockout stage.

Slovakia blew the chance to qualify for the last 16 with a match to spare after losing to Sweden in St Petersburg and conceding top spot in Group ‘E’ to their opponents.

The Swedes were heavily criticised for their ultra-defensive approach in their opening match, a goalless draw with Spain, but Janne Andersson’s team were far more forward-looking on Friday.

Emil Forsberg’s penalty 13 minutes from the end earned Sweden a win which gives them four points, one more than second-placed Slovakia who had needed a win if they were to seal early passage to the next round.

Far from the turgid display against Spain, Sweden almost scored one of the great European championship goals through Real Sociedad striker Alexander Isak, who weaved past four defenders before seeing a low strike saved by Martin Dubravka at his near post.

Sweden now look set to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 2004, with a point in their final game against Poland at the Krestovsky Stadium on Wednesday enough to ensure a top-two finish in the group.

Spain sit third in the group with a single point ahead of their game against Poland in Seville on Saturday, boosted by the return of captain Sergio Busquets to Luis Enrique’s squad after testing negative for Covid-19.

On Thursday, substitute Kevin De Bruyne set up one goal and scored the winner himself to give Belgium a 2-1 victory over Denmark in Copenhagen while the Netherlands comfortably beat Austria 2-0 in Amsterdam to also book a last-16 spot.

In a game marked by an emotional tribute to Christian Eriksen in the first half, De Bruyne came on after halftime for his first appearance since sustaining a facial fracture in the Champions League final and squared the ball for Thorgan Hazard to equalsze in the 55th minute.

He then scored in the 71st with a low shot from outside the area.

“We can be happy,” De Bruyne told RTBF. “We knew that there would be difficult moments against Denmark and in front of this crowd, with everything that happened.”

It was Denmark’s first game since Eriksen’s collapse, and the hosts started at a furious pace at a raucous Parken Stadium. Yussuf Poulsen scored with a low shot inside the far post in only the second minute.

Players from both teams then halted play after 10 minutes as the 25,000 fans rose for a minute of thunderous applause in tribute to Eriksen, who wears the No. 10 shirt for Denmark’s national team.

The players joined the applause as well, as did referee Bjorn Kuipers.

Eriksen was discharged from hospital following a successful operation on Friday and immediately went to visit his Denmark team-mates.

Belgium join Italy in the last 16, sitting three points clear of Russia and Finland — who they face in St Petersburg on Monday needing a point to finish top of the Group ‘B’ table.

Denmark still have a chance of reaching the next round, as a win over Russia in their final group game in Copenhagen could potentially see them through.

Memphis Depay and Denzel Dumfries scored a goal in each half as Frank de Boer’s Netherlands marked their return to major tournament football after a seven-year absence by reaching the last 16 with a game to spare.

Depay sent a penalty kick low into the corner in the 11th minute for his 27th goal in 66 international matches. Dumfries then scored his second goal of the tournament following his late winner against Ukraine in the 67th after an unselfish pass from PSV Eindhoven team-mate Donyell Malen.

“The most important thing isn’t my performance, it’s the three points,” said Dumfries. “We created good chances and deserved the victory.”

Austria, playing without banned forward Marko Arnautovic at the Johan Cruyff Arena, rarely threatened to equalise against a well-ordered Dutch defence led by Matthijs De Ligt on his return from a groin injury.

The Netherlands’ win seals top spot in Group ‘C’ ahead of Austria and Ukraine, who meet on Monday with second place up for grabs, and makes North Macedonia the first side to be eliminated from this year’s tournament.

Germany’s hopes of reaching the knock-out stage are hanging in the balance as they host holders Portugal in Munch on Saturday.

After a 1-0 loss to France in their opener, the pressure is on Germany to do much better before their final Group ‘F’ match against Hungary, also in Munich.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal sit top of the early group table after their 3-0 win over Hungary and can secure a spot in the round of 16 with a win ahead of their last group game against World Cup champions France.

France are up against Hungary in Budapest in the other Group ‘F’ game on Saturday and will be through to the last 16 if they win the first meeting of the two nations in 16 years.

Hungary, however, will have huge backing at the 67,215-capacity Puskas Arena, just like against Portugal. Hungary is the only one of the 10 countries hosting matches at the tournament to allow full crowds amid the pandemic.

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