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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 July 2018

Superior Sweden claim VAR-assisted win over South Korea in 2018 World Cup opener

Captain Granqvist slots home the decisive penalty as Sweden move level with Mexico atop Group F

They have a history, do South Korea and referees. Their run to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals came with official assistance, courtesy of mistakes from the men in black.

Human error is being reduced in the 2018 tournament, however, and South Korea’s opening defeat came courtesy of technology.

It came at the hands of Sweden, too, and was sealed by the right foot of Andreas Granqvist, but it revolved around a second view of an incident that, in previous years, could have been an injustice.

When the whistle blew, South Korea were on a seemingly promising attack and the ball was on the edge of Sweden’s 18-yard box. When it restarted, it was with a penalty in South Korea’s.

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Referee Joel Aguilar had initially deemed Kim Min-woo’s challenge on Viktor Claesson fair. He reversed that decision with the aid of VAR, a monitor by the side of the pitch clearly showing the Swedish midfielder was first to the ball and then chopped down.

The captain Granqvist scored the spot kick to mean Sweden began their World Cup campaign with a win for the first time since 1958.

They reached the final then and, if few would predict a repeat, victory was vital in a group whose context was changed by Mexico’s shock win over Germany. It already looks a three-way battle for the two qualification places. For the second successive World Cup, South Korea face an early exit. They took a solitary point in 2014. They may not even muster that this time.

Ultimately, they should not argue with either the decision or the result. They lacked invention and incision alike as they failed to muster an attempt on target. Koo Ja-cheol headed into the side-netting and Hwang Hee-chan directed an effort wastefully wide in added time while Lee Seung-woo made a difference as a substitute, but there was insufficient threat.

There were occasional glimpses of Son Heung-min’s pace, but he was a bit-part player. The giant striker Kim Shin-wook was well contained by a sizeable Swedish back four.

And it was fitting a Swedish defender delivered their winner. Defence has propelled them thus far – they shut out Italy in both legs of a play-off – and their organisation was apparent again. They were without the ill Victor Lindelof, but Pontus Jansson slotted in seamlessly alongside Granqvist.

And he exerted an influence at both ends of the pitch. One chance for Marcus Berg stemmed from the captain’s chipped pass. Kim Young-gwon had to make a terrific saving tackle when Granqvist exchanged passes and surged into the South Korean box.

Perhaps it was an unexpected ingredient, but if the concern was that a workmanlike Swedish team lacked the creativity, they compensated with collective superiority. Claesson, who had come close with a header, gained in prominence as the game progressed. Sweden could have led earlier.

Cho Hyun-woo made a superb stop to deny Berg when the forward found himself unmarked six yards from goal. The Al Ain striker should have done better, but the goalkeeper excelled again to repel Ola Toivonen’s header.

It was just Cho’s seventh cap and a moment of vindication for manager Shin Tae-yong, who promoted him ahead of more experienced goalkeepers.

Their other rescuer was Kim Young-gwon, who made terrific recovery challenges on Granqvist and Berg. Yet South Korea’s defence was disrupted when they lost left-back Park Joo-ho, seemingly with a hamstring injury that threatens to end his tournament. It came at a cost: Kim Min-woo was his replacement.

His rash lunge may have escaped unpunished in previous tournaments, but not this. A wrong was righted. It amounted to a triumph for technology and Sweden alike.