NIZHNIY NOVGOROD (AFP, REUTERS) - A VAR-awarded penalty gave Sweden a narrow but deserved victory in their opening Group F match against a poor South Korea on Monday (June 18).
Veteran Swedish skipper Andreas Granqvist scored the only goal of the game from the spot after Viktor Claesson was upended by South Korean substitute Kim Min Woo in the 62nd minute.
Despite furious appeals, El Salvadorean referee Joel Aguilar, who had ironically been whistle-happy up until that point, intially waved away Swedish penalty claims.
But, after consulting the video, he pointed to the spot. It was the third VAR penalty awarded at the 2018 World Cup after France and Peru also benefitted from video referrals.
"The VAR took a while but we are very pleased they had it ... I was pretty sure," Granqvist said of the wait.
The win was reward for Sweden's more attacking approach, but it was unsurprising the winner came from the penalty spot in a game between two sides who had managed only two goals between them in seven games heading into Russia.
Sweden never really convinced that they would score prior to the penalty despite their domination and a toothless South Korea did not manage one shot on target.
However, the Asian side should have equalised in the 90th minute but Hwang Hee Chan put a free header wide, spurning their best chance of the game by far.
The victory left Sweden joint top of the group after Mexico's surprise 1-0 victory over world champions Germany on Sunday.
Next up for the Swedes is an intriguing encounter against Germany in Sochi on June 23.
"If we win against Germany, we are through. The pressure is on them," said the ebullient Granqvist.
South Korea started the game brightly, forcing the first corner in the fourth minute, but were gradually forced back by an attritional Swedish side.
It was the Scandinavians who came closest to breaking the deadlock when forward Marcus Berg was denied by a fine point-blank save by Cho Hyun Woo in the 20th minute.
Berg was denied again nine minutes later by a desperate last-ditch block from Kim Young Gwon.
Despite their increasing dominance, Sweden also demonstrated why they have struggled to score goals.
Berg, again, and Claesson went close before the end of the half, but it was clear for everyone to see why they had scored only once in their four matches prior to Russia.
South Korea coach Shin Tae Yong had no complaints about the penalty, and praised his team's battle with Sweden for aerial superiority. "It was unfortunate we lost," he lamented, saying he was now focused on the next game against "formidable" Mexico.
South Korea threatened only on the break where Son Heung Min's pace troubled 33-year-old Granqvist, who was without defending partner Victor Lindelof, who was ill.
The somewhat controversial build-up to the game - where Sweden were accused of spying on their opponents - was increasingly reflected in the niggly nature of the match.
Resilient Sweden held firm after the goal and, apart from the Hwang late scare and a half-hearted South Korea appeal for a penalty, their defence rarely looked troubled.
The huge celebrations at the end showed the importance the Swedes attached to this match.
Before the game, Shin called it a "must win" game but the defeat left his side contemplating only an early exit.