Zlatan Ibrahimovic locates magic touch to make inevitable mark for Sweden

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic

is As Zlatan Ibrahimovic surveyed the rousing scene before kick-off, he gave a little nod as if to deign this arena and occasion worthy of his presence. The man who famously said a World Cup without him was not worth watching was ready. We could begin.

It is unlikely he expected to trudge off at half-time having been shackled by a combination of robust Irish defending, that pushed him ever deeper, and error-strewn, haphazard Swedish link-up play.

But by the final whistle he had shown that, even on a day when all around him were largely misfiring, he could drag Sweden to a point that will feel like one gained given the extent to which Martin O’Neill’s effervescent Republic of Ireland dominated the opening 50 minutes.

If the clouds overhead were slate grey, before kick-off, they seemed to metaphorically lift. As the deafening PA boomed out ear-splitting Europop, the Stade de France crackled with anticipation from two sets of fans who appeared to be on a collective mission to cut through the fug of security worries and dismal dissection of events in Marseille that had weighed down the opening days.

To the left: the usual ginger beards, leprechauns, comedy sunglasses and novelty hats that make the travelling Irish support look increasingly like a noisy riot in a pound shop. To the right: a sea of yellow and blue.

Ireland’s efforts more than echoed the intensity and effort of their support. Yet the ghost of Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009 in the buildup to the goal that denied the Republic a place at the 2010 World Cup also haunts this stadium.

With each chance that came and went during an impressive first-half display their fans must have felt that the old cliche had been inverted when it comes to the French national stadium.

And, if the Irish are placing their faith in the team ethic, for the Swedes all that hope is invested in just one man: Ibrahimovic. Entering his sixth major tournament for Sweden at the age of 34 as the definition of a one-man team, he is quite clear that the pressure does not faze him. “I have been dominating wherever I go. I have no issue about that,” he said on the eve of the match with a twinkle in his eye.

But that certainly was not the case during a first half when Sweden had long spells of possession but Ireland had all the cutting edge and all the chances, coming closest when Jeff Hendrick’s beautifully struck effort hit the bar.

Sweden’s talisman wandered aimlessly searching for the ball and trying to introduce some vim into their performance.

“I thought the players played him exceptionally well today. I thought that we were dominant in that aspect of it. We forced him away from our goal as much as we possibly could and it worked a treat,” said O’Neill afterwards. “The players have to take great credit for that.”

Sweden’s coach, Erik Hamren, did not blame his star man: “To be a forward you need support. Our attacking play wasn’t really good. The first 50 minutes our forwards didn’t have much to work with.”

Yet an ineffective Zlatan is still Zlatan – even if he was deservedly eclipsed by Norwich City’s Wes Hoolahan, scorer of a fine opening goal in a performance full of verve.

Rather like Gareth Bale for Wales, it is impossible to take your eyes from him, even in an atmosphere as riotous as this – he seems somehow bigger, more hyper real than his team-mates.

Perhaps it is the man bun. More likely it is the sense that they remain the most talented kids in the playground, sparking the frisson that something is about to happen every time they get the ball.

But the Swedish talisman’s frustration was summed up by a moment deep into the first half when a trademark pirouette drew “ooohs” from the crowd. It was pretty, yet ineffective – in the centre circle rather than the opposition area.

Despite his age Ibrahimovic insists he is still getting better. Eyeing a final payday at Old Trafford, he is backed by the stats – 50 goals in 52 games last season. But here he was a spectator for long periods, grimacing and fidgeting with his captain’s armband as his team-mates failed to play their supporting roles and the match flitted around rather than through him.

As Sweden chased an equaliser he was caught offside three times in quick succession through a combination of carelessness and desperation, resulting in more grimaces.

Shortly after Hoolahan fired Ireland into the lead a low cross flashed across the box, evading Ibrahimovic but falling perfectly for the left-back Martin Olsson. As he slashed wildly at the ball, Ibrahimovic had his head in his hands.

And yet he did not hide. He never does. As Ireland tired Ibrahimovic bustled down to the byline, set free by a smart backheel from the substitute John Guidetti, sowing the seeds of panic that prompted the unfortunate Ciaran Clark to turn the ball into his own net.

Despite a lacklustre Swedish showing, it felt inevitable he would still have a big influence on the outcome of this match and so it proved – even when the statistics showed his side officially registered a grand total of zero shots on target.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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