Sweden came into their opening match of the 2018 World Cup with a gaping chink in their armour – one that roughly resembled the shape of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Indeed, for the first time since 1992, Sweden were entering a World Cup without a star centre forward in their squad. It was Henrik Larsson first, Ibrahimovic after him. The Swedes have always been known for their organisation and team spirit, and not for star power but they have had at least one talisman in their side who could turn on the style when needed.

It was little surprise, then, that when they headed into half time 0-0 against South Korea on Monday, it had been 382 minutes since they scored a goal. The most recent 45 minutes saw them play well enough in defence and the midfield but there simply wasn’t enough quality in the final third.

On the other side, South Korea. One of Asia’s most consistent teams when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup finals, the Koreans came into the tournament with plenty of uncertainty surrounding them as well. They only just managed to sneak through their AFC qualifiers, there were injuries to key players and the team was struggling for results in the lead up to the tournament. The team had lost thrice and drawn once in the five matches before the World Cup finals. Coach Shin Tae-yong was busy trying to nail down a formation that will produce the results.

Ordinarily, a game between two struggling sides in the group stage of a World Cup finals would not have too much riding on it.

But Mexico’s win over Germany changed the complexion of this match on its head. Suddenly, it was a must-win fixture of either side, given that both have to yet face the World Champions who are now in a precarious position of winning against them to qualify. Both Sweden and Korea knew a win here is significant.., nigh, imperative... if they had to get out of the group.

While that made for a fairly open game, there wasn’t enough quality on display – exemplified by this stat: the first shot in this match came after exactly 20 minutes – according to Opta, that is the second longest it has taken in a World Cup match since 1966.

An inspired goalkeeper

But once the early dreariness of the game passed by, the first half had enough indications that Sweden were the more likely side to go away with three points from this game. But for an inspired performance by goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, the men in yellow and blue would have had a few moments to celebrate in the first half. The third-choice goalkeeper for the Koreans, the 26-year-old was a surprise selection but he justified his coach’s faith with a stunning save off Marcus Berg. He was a solid presence in the box, coming out confidently to gather the barrage of crosses from the right flank, which seemed to be Sweden’s Plans A, B, and C.

With every passing minute of the game, however, it seemed likely that Sweden simply didn’t have the quality needed to finish off the chances they were creating.

Up stepped VAR...

Sweden take the lead, thanks to technology (Image: Reuters)

First winner: Technology

There has been plenty of debate surrounding the Video Assistant Referee in the early stages of the World Cup. While it’s fairly obvious that the game cannot move forward without embracing technology, the implementation of VAR has come in for criticism. Soft penalties being awarded on review (read: Griezmann versus Australia), genuine penalty calls not being reviewed (read: Kane vs Tunisia) – there has been a fair amount of inconsistency.

But in the match between Sweden and South Korea, there was an example of how the technology should really work. When Viktor Claesson went down in the box, the angle that we could see on television and even for the referee indicated that Lee Yong-Joon had made a good tackle while making contact with the forward. Play was allowed to carry on but when the ball reached a ‘neutral zone’, the referee paused play and went for a second look. The other angle clearly showed there was bare minimum contact by the defender on the ball but he had taken down Claesson. The correct decision was made and Swedish captain Andreas Granqvist stepped up and slotted the ball home.

Of course, the England-Tunisia game would once again see more dubious decision-making of the VAR, but that wouldn’t be Sweden’s problem.

From then on, Granqvist and Co simply had to do what they were really good at – staying organised and not conceding a goal. Just ask Italy how good they are at that.

After that South Korea had no option but to try and score a couple of goals, but it was telling that the only real chance for the Asian giants came in injury time when Hwang Hee-chan headed over the goal from a few yards away. Sweden could celebrate an opening day win after a six-decade wait.

Second winner: Germany

While Die Mannschaft would have preferred this game to end in a draw so that neither team pulls three points ahead of them after that stunning defeat to Mexico on Sunday, they would have seen enough to know that these are two imminently beatable teams. While El Tri came at the Germans with pace – tearing them open through the middle and on the flanks every time they won the ball – neither Sweden nor South Korea showed they have that as a weapon in their arsenal. For Sweden, there is a lack of attacking firepower up front and their midfield could be further weakened by Seb Larsson limping off injured at the end. For South Korea, all hopes lie on Son Heung-min – he seemed to be the only player capable of producing a moment of quality in a match that was short on that front.

Joachim Loew’s side will simply have to win their remaining two games to avoid becoming the third defending champions in the last four World Cup finals to crash out in the first round. On the evidence of what he would have seen on Monday, he will be quietly confident.