One of the best Republic of Ireland performances in recent memory wasn’t quite enough to claim three points in the opening Group E game at the European Championships on Monday evening.
A brilliant first half showing failed to yield a goal, but Wes Hoolahan put that right within three minutes of the restart with a stunning right foot half volley from Seamus Coleman’s cross.
The euphoria turned to utter deflation 23 minutes later, however, as Sweden drew level when Ciaran Clark found the back of his own net with a header from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cross.
Many would have taken a point before a ball was kicked but having the better chances and restricting the Swedes to a total of zero shots on target means that the outcome feels very much like two points dropped.
Ireland started the game superbly off the back of a rousing rendition of Amhran na bhFiann and Jeff Hendrick tested Isaksson early on with a low drive.
The Derby Country midfielder later rattled the crossbar from distance, while Robbie Brady hammered a left foot shot just off target, and skipper John O’Shea was just failed to get a toe onto a Clark flick on.
Shane Long, the man predicted to be Ireland’s biggest threat going into the game, was well marshalled by the Swedish defence, while at the other end, Zlatan Ibrahimovic got very little change out of O’Shea and Clark.
Tails were up at the interval, despite the lack of goals, and Sweden were very much there for the taking as Ireland sought their first win at the European Championships since Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net back in 1988.
It was another diminutive attacker that created Ireland’s latest lasting memory as Hoolahan struck on 48 minutes, placing a delightful effort into the right corner of the net on the half volley following some excellent work on the wing from Coleman.
The Norwich City man was deservedly given the Irish Man of the Match award afterwards and his touch, awareness, and vision were a joy to behold for the majority of his 78 minutes on the pitch.
At 34 years of age, Hoolahan should have had moments like this a long time ago but was never in favour during Giovanni Trapattoni’s spell in charge and is now having to make up for lost time.
Just after the hour mark, Ireland lost Jonathan Walters as his troubling Achilles injury flared up again, and there have been some suggestions that he could miss the rest of the tournament.
I sort of felt it I think after one minute and couldn’t really sprint or jump so it wasn’t great. I just sort of got through hoping that it would settle down.
In the second half, after a couple of runs, it just tightened up even worse. I think the right thing was to come off and hopefully it will settle down and be okay.
– Jonathan Walters
A galvanised Sweden grew into the game the more the second half went on, with Martin Olsson proving a real thorn in the side as he galloped forward from left back at every opportunity.
Ireland struggled to deal with set pieces, and Darren Randolph produced a superb one handed save to stop a goal bound effort after the ball had come off Clark.
There was no getting off the hook for Clark on 71 minutes though and, after Ibrahimovic had dictated play on the edge of the area before putting in a dangerous cross, the Aston Villa man struck for the own goal equaliser.
Sweden smelled blood, and Ibrahimovic was a whisker away from turning home a cross from Olsson for what would have likely ended up being the match winning goal.
Hoolahan was replaced by Robbie Keane for the last 12 minutes but the nation’s record goal scorer barely touched the ball in the closing stages.
The decision to replace the goalscorer was a tactical one, though Hoolahan did admit to having a slight calf problem, and the loss of a natural playmaker meant that Ireland resorted to long balls and crosses as the game fizzled out.
At the final whistle, the disappointment was evident among both the Irish players and supporters, a testament to just how good a performance it was for much of the 90 minutes.
There were a lot of positives to take from some of the individual showings, Hoolahan aside, with Brady now looking a natural at left back, while Hendrick has developed into a permanent fixture in the middle of the park.
The understated work of Glenn Whelan was at times in stark contract to the efforts of James McCarthy who was the subject of derision from Eamon Dunphy on Irish television afterwards.
McCarthy’s cause wasn’t helped by a first half booking which somewhat muzzled his tenacity but the Everton man disappeared when needed in the second period and was substituted on 85 minutes.
Despite scoring the own goal, Clark handled Ibrahimovic very well and should keep his place in the team ahead of Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy.
Both sets of fans made a lot of noise, but the national anthem; it was just amazing to be out there on the pitch listening to it and singing along.
I’m sure the Irish fans were happy with what they saw, but, like ourselves, were disappointed not to get the win.
– Shane Long
In the group’s other game, there was a bit of a surprise as the much fancied Belgians were beaten 2-0 by what has been labelled the worst Italian team at a major tournament since the mid 1980s.
Ireland will now head to Bordeaux where they will prepare to take on Belgium this Saturday, and a win would all but guarantee progress to the knockout stage.
With Walters under a big injury cloud and question marks over whether Hoolahan can play two games in the space of a week, Martin O’Neill’s team selection for game two will be the subject of much scrutiny over the next few days.
A point against Sweden is by no means a disaster, and a massive improvement on the opening game four years ago against Croatia, but having played so well it’s disappointing not to be joining Italy at the top of the table.
However, that in itself is a reason to be positive because we now know that this Ireland team is more than capable of making it out of the group for the first time ever.