Russia miss out on UEFA Nations League promotion after defeat in Sweden
Goals from Manchester United defender Victor Lindelof just before half time and a second-half strike from Marcus Berg were enough to settle matters and hand Sweden top spot on seven points in Group B2, courtesy of a superior head to head record against Stanislav Cherchesov's team.
In a meeting of two World Cup quarter-finalists, Sweden had much the better of the first half at the Friends Arena, dominating possession and drawing numerous saves from Andrei Lunev in the Russian goal.
The Swedes thought they had taken the lead on 22 minutes when Martin Olsson broke free and had the ball in the back of the net, only to be pulled back for offside. Andreas Granqvist then saw his header well saved from Lunev as the hosts looked the likelier to open the scoring.
Russian skipper Artem Dzyuba headed straight at Swedish ‘keeper Robin Olsen from inside the box at the other end, while Aleksey Ionov spurned a good chance for Russia when through one on one.
But the deadlock was broken just before half time when Lindelof fired home inside the box when the ball dropped to him from a corner.
Russia improved after the break, but found themselves with a mountain to climb when striker Marcus Berg doubled Sweden’s lead when he turned home a rebound after Lunev had saved well from Sebastian Larsson.
The hosts saw out the game comfortably to ensure they leapfrogged Russia into top spot in the group, booking a guaranteed play-off place for Euro 2020 in the process, should they fail to reach the tournament automatically.
For Russia and head coach Cherchesov, it was a disappointing night in what has been a remarkable purple patch for the team during and since their home World Cup.
They went into the game needing only a draw to secure promotion to Europe's elite in the inaugural UEFA competition, having drawn with Sweden last time out in Kaliningrad and beaten Turkey home and away.
However, Cherchesov was missing several key players on the night through injury - including midfield duo Aleksandr Golovin and Roman Zobin, and the attacking threat of Denis Cheryshev - as well as being without goalkeeping stalwart Igor Akinfeev, who recently retired from international duty.
Russia’s lack of a creative outlet was particularly telling, as they were put under pressure for much of the first half against a typically robust, well-organized Sweden under the shrewd Janne Andersson.
The result means Russia follow last week’s friendly defeat against Germany with another loss to end the year, although Cherchesov and the nation will nonetheless look back on 2018 as a remarkable one for Russian football.