The Republic of Ireland have not had much luck at the European Championship or, indeed, at this stadium but, for a brief period on a pulsating evening, Martin O’Neill’s players looked set to etch their names into history. They had dominated this Group E opener and, when Wes Hoolahan put them in front with a sumptuous half-volley, they could begin to dream.
Ireland have qualified for this tournament on only two previous occasions and they have one victory – the Ray Houghton-inspired triumph over England at Euro 88. But when Hoolahan struck, everything looked rosy. The truth was that they ought to have been further ahead, having created the chances in the first-half, most glaringly, for John O’Shea.
Hoolahan’s timing and technique were perfect, which is what his followers have come to expect but what drew the breath even more was that he executed the goal of his life – and only the fourth that his country have scored at this level – with his supposedly weaker right foot.
From a position of strength, Ireland imploded. None of their players have been in this situation before – leading, and in a convincing way, on such a grand stage – and it was possible to lament their lack of streetwise game management. O’Neill cited fatigue as an aggravating factor.
The fall guy would be Ciaran Clark and he will have nightmares about the moment when his own goal gave Sweden the equaliser. It was harsh on the central defender, who had previously coped well with Zlatan Ibrahimovic but, when the Sweden captain escaped on the left and crossed, Clark lunged and headed into his own net. Clark had earlier sliced an attempted clearance at his own goal, and he was saved by the goalkeeper Darren Randolph’s reactions. There would be no bailout this time.
At the venue where Ireland were cheated out of a place at the 2010 World Cup by Thierry Henry’s handball for France, they acquitted themselves well. There was all of the usual passion and commitment but O’Neill was correct to talk up their accomplishment on the ball. It was something that boded well for the challenges ahead.
Sweden brought the pedigree, having reached the quarter-finals of this competition in 2004 and the semi-finals in 1992, but the statistics showed that they did not manage a shot on target. And yet it was they who looked the stronger team in the closing stages and the more likely to nick a winner. The turnaround from what had gone before Hoolahan’s goal to what would follow was startling.
For Ireland, it still felt like two points dropped and when the dust had settled, it was not a particularly good result for either country. With matches to come against the group favourites, Belgium and Italy, the importance of victory was tremendous. In many respects, this had the trimmings of a knockout tie. Both teams must now dust themselves down.
“We should be speaking to you with three points on the board, instead of one,” O’Neill said. “That would have given us a really great chance. We played brilliantly but you have to put the ball in the net. It’s probably true that we’ll now have to win against either Belgium or Italy. I’m disappointed, and so are the players.”
Sweden had been present in name only during the first half and the vociferous Ireland fans could revel in a cohesive and threatening showing. O’Shea’s chance was the big one but from Robbie Brady’s 17th-minute corner and Clark’s flick-on, he allowed the ball to squirm under his studs at the far post, as the goal gaped.
Ireland pieced together some slick passages of play, one of which ended with Jeff Hendrick taking a lay-off from Shane Long and rattling the crossbar with a 25-yard drive. The veteran Sweden goalkeeper, Andreas Isaksson, was beaten. Hendrick worked Isaksson on three other occasions; Brady hammered a rising shot just over the crossbar and there was the moment before half-time when Brady crossed and Long, who looked to have been impeded by Martin Olsson, was inches from making contact.
The breakthrough goal had been signposted but the question concerned whether Ireland could locate it. Hoolahan gave the answer in style. Séamus Coleman tied Emil Forsberg in a knot on the right and his cross was cut back invitingly. There remained much to do but Hoolahan, running towards the ball, showed his class to crash it into the far corner of the net.
Sweden, though, would stir from their sleepwalk and, worryingly for Ireland, Zlatan Ibrahimovic became more of an influence. Forsberg shot wastefully wide after Randolph’s diving save from Clark’s miscue while Ibrahimovic, having got position on Clark, volleyed past the post from Olsson’s cross.
Ireland lost Jon Walters in the 63rd minute to a recurrence of his recent achilles injury, which O’Neill said was a “concern”. The forward later admitted he had struggled with it since the first minute.
“I didn’t feel like I could sprint or jump,” Walters said. “I was trying to get through but it just tightened up in the second half.”
Ibrahimovic claimed the assist on the equaliser and he was close to snatching victory in the 82nd minute only to narrowly fail to get a touch to another Olsson cross. When Ireland’s recent history is analysed, it often comes down to how draws are graded. This was a negative one.
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