A fair few young players have had their dreams of impressing at Euro 2020 dashed by injury or illness issues.
Joao Felix only got the one substitute appearance for Portugal, Billy Gilmour missed Scotland’s final group game after contracting coronavirus, and Matthijs de Ligt was absent for the Netherlands’ opener against Ukraine.
All three have since been knocked out of the tournament, as has Sweden star Dejan Kulusevski, whose only start came in the last 16 defeat to Ukraine.
In probably the least desirable of all the round of 16 games, the Swedes were taken to extra time by Ukraine and, just when a penalty shootout looked like an absolute certainty after goals from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Emil Forsberg, Artem Dovbyk stepped up in the 121st minute to win it for Andriy Shevchenko’s side, setting up a quarter final with England in the process.
For Sweden, it was a bitterly disappointing exit, having finished top of Group E ahead of Spain, Slovakia and Poland. Unfortunately for Kulusevski, we didn’t see the best of the Juventus star when his country needed him in the knockout stage. Or much of him at all, in fact.
Having come off the bench to set up two goals against Poland courtesy of his powerful running and killer final ball, the 21-year-old looked a little lethargic against Ukraine in a game where players were dropping like flies with injuries.
Kulusevski played up front alongside fellow young prodigy Alexander Isak, a role he often filled for Juve during the club season. His movement for the most part was decent, gliding around the box and stretching Ukraine’s back three with his pace, but instead it was Forsberg who provided Sweden’s biggest goal threat during the game and generally throughout the tournament.
The former Parma star’s preparations for Euro 2020 were disrupted by a positive COVID-19 test, meaning he was unable to face Spain. The good news for Sweden off the back of this tournament, however, is that they have the attributes in their current crop of players to suggest they can be serious dark horses in future competitions.
Victor Lindelof was solid in central defence alongside Marcus Danielson – the latter’s horror tackle and red card against Ukraine aside – and midfield workhorses Albin Ekdal and Kristoffer Olsson showed they can frustrate sides filled with attacking quality like Spain.
That platform should prove invaluable in the future for someone like Kulusevski.
Playing alongside someone like Cristiano Ronaldo at club level can be pretty tough nowadays, given the physical exertion needed from players like Kulusevski to afford the Portuguese forward space and chances, but his attacking returns should only improve in Turin.
Sweden aren’t expected to win the World Cup or a European Championship anytime soon, but the tactical set-up from manager Janne Andersson was perfect this summer. They conceded just twice in the group stage and might have made the quarter finals without Danielson’s moment of madness.
Just two appearances will be a frustrating return for Kulusevski, but he showed his game-changing ability in the 3-2 victory over Poland, registering two assists to help his side top the group.
The exit is undoubtedly disappointing, especially against a side that only qualified as one of the best third placed teams, but the structure and organisation Sweden displayed throughout is proof players like Isak and Kulusevski can shine even brighter at future tournaments.