Italy’s long-held reputation as tournament specialists was further enhanced as they secured their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2016 with a classic smash and grab win over Sweden in Toulouse.
A fine 88th-minute finish from Eder was enough to secure victory in an otherwise uninspiring game which leaves the Swedes on the brink of elimination – although unambitious performances from both sides did little to enrich the encounter.
First-placed Italy have a total of six points from two games and third-placed Sweden have one; the Republic of Ireland or Belgium could yet climb clear of Sweden depending on the outcome of their match today.
The Italians, who defeated Ireland 2-0 at the last European Championship, face them again on Wednesday when Sweden meet Belgium. Two further teams could yet progress to the second round.
The Brazilian-born Eder produced the defining moment of the match, dribbling past the static Swedish defence before curling the ball into the bottom right corner in the 88th minute after substitute Simone Zaza headed on a long throw-in from Giorgio Chiellini.
“It was a great goal,” Eder said. “It reminds me of my first goal for Italy. It was in the qualifying stages against Bulgaria. I dummied and the ball went in and I’m delighted.
“The small details make a big difference. The fact that that goal came from a throw-in makes me even more pleased.”
Italy had been criticised before the competition but they had produced perhaps the finest performance of any side so far when they overcame Belgium 2-0.
Sweden, meanwhile, had been unimpressive in their 1-1 draw with Ireland, when only Ciaran Clark’s second-half own goal prevented them falling to defeat.
In that context, Italy were expected to again win, but during an uninspiring opening 45 minutes it was Sweden who played with greater intent and who justified previous concerns surrounding Italy’s quality.
Manager Erik Hamren had responded to their disappointing performance against the Irish by replacing Marcus Berg with former Celtic striker John Guidetti and Albin Ekdal with Oscar Lewicki. An injury to Mikael Lustig also meant a starting place for Erik Johansson, and overall they improved.
Yet as has been the case for much of the past decade, the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, pictured, represented their greatest chance of victory.
It did much to capture the nature of their game that the forward wasted what appeared their finest chance midway through the second half. A left-wing cross made its way through Italy’s penalty area but, despite space from directly in front of goal, Ibrahimovic somehow missed the target and was saved from disappointment only by being ruled offside.
Italy threatened in the 82nd minute when Marco Parolo headed Emanuele Giaccherini’s cross against the crossbar.
With a draw looking inevitable, substitute Simone Zaza then headed towards Eder, and the striker classily dribbled through Sweden’s defence before equally impressively finishing beyond goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.
Sweden had a stoppage-time penalty appeal dismissed, and Italy held out.
Italy coach Antonio Conte said it was a major accomplishment to have reached the knockout stages with a game to spare, especially because many had written off the side before the tournament.
“We are very pleased,” Conte said. “I think very few people would have envisaged that we would have been in the last 16 after just two matches. It’s a huge achievement. The players deserve the credit.”
Before the Group E match, Sweden coach Hamren promised a brighter approach and his players didn’t let him down. Ibrahimovic had an early chance when Kim Kallstrom whipped in a dangerous cross from the left, but Chiellini made a headed clearance.
“Of course I’m disappointed, as are the players at this moment in time,” Hamren said. “If we look at the match, I think we played very well. We defended well, and we really succeeded in closing down the Italian players. It’s just toward the end of the match that we lost concentration.”