Zlatan is no Swede saviour, says Gary Lim
Italy nullify veteran talisman as they progress to Round of 16
In a team of ordinary performers, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the saving grace.
No, make that the only reason Sweden are at Euro 2016.
His 11 goals in their qualifying campaign - three in the two-legged play-off win over Denmark - secured the Swedes a ticket to France.
An entire country hailed their talisman.
But even Ibrahimovic can't save them this time round.
A 1-0 defeat by Italy at the Stadium Municipal in Toulouse last night saw the Azzurri book their berth in the Round of 16 and leave Sweden's chances dangling by a thread.
Their solitary point from two matches came in the 1-1 draw in their opening game against the Republic of Ireland on Monday.
The expanded format of this edition of the European Championship, which for the first time allows four third-placed teams to qualify for the Round of 16, means that Sweden can still squeeze through to the knockout stage.
But, even if they do, they will merely be delaying the inevitable.
Ibrahimovic may be used to carrying a nation's hopes on his ageing shoulders, but this is fast looking like an impossible, thankless task.
His strike partner John Guidetti is a willing runner, but without the vision to read or interpret what the 34-year-old master thinks.
The midfield, which comprised the likes of veteran Kim Kallstrom and Sebastian Larsson, lacks the guile to break down top opponents like Italy.
Sweden's defence looks competent, but not exceptional.
In a largely dour match in Toulouse yesterday, the game needed Ibrahimovic's artistry.
It never came.
Italy were a far cry from the world-beaters they looked when they tore apart Belgium 2-0 in Lyon.
They were somewhat unadventurous, frustrating to watch even.
But it wasn't a case of the Azzurri blowing hot and cold.
It's the Italian way.
They never burden themselves with the duty to please. It's substance over style, anytime.
And they cut it so fine.
Antonio Conte's side knew a draw would benefit themselves more than the Swedes.
The onus was on Sweden to grab the three points.
Sweden's reliance on Ibrahimovic clearly showed.
Against the Republic of Ireland, the Manchester United-linked striker made the cross that led to the opponents scoring an own goal.
But, against an Italian rearguard marshalled by Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon, who have more than 350 caps among them, he failed to make a meaningful impression.
Sweden showed ambition, but clearly did not have the quality to match their spirit.
The game finally livened up after the break, as it was the Azzurri who began to find the attacking openings as the desperation in the opposite camp grew.
Just after the hour mark, a brilliant tackle by Kallstrom prevented Emanuele Giaccherini from pulling the trigger in the penalty area.
CAN BE BETTER
Moments later, Antonio Candreva should have done better but, from the byeline and with several teammates lurking in the box, he could only cross straight into the arms of goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.
Sweden's sporadic attacks were hardly threatening.
One of their best opportunities came in the 72nd minute, when Ibrahimovic found himself facing an open goal from one metre out.
But he must be glad the offside flag came to his rescue, for he had somehow managed to blast his shot way over the bar.
With eight minutes left on the clock, Marco Parolo thought he had given Italy the breakthrough with his thunderous header, only for it to hit the woodwork.
By then, it was clear the game was gradually tilting Italy's way.
Sweden needed a moment of brilliance. They looked for their saviour.
The magic finally came with two minutes left, but it was conjured by a man in blue. Up stepped Eder.
The Brazil-born striker slalomed diagonally across a retreating Swedish defence, then curled a superb winner into the net.
It was the kind of strike that Sweden had expected from Ibrahimovic.
But he's no Swede saviour.
"Zlatan did what he needed to do in the last two matches. It was tough for him because Italy defended very well ...of course a centre forward needs the support of wingers..."
- Sweden coach Erik Hamren
"We were much better than the Italians for periods, but we didn’t create really dangerous chances."
- Sweden midfielder Albin Ekdal
"Who would’ve expected that after two games, Italy would qualify for the Round of 16?"
- Italy coach Antonio Conte
"I hadn’t played much for Inter lately, so worked alone at home to get myself up to full fitness and I think it paid off."
- Italy’s match-winner Eder