Match Report: Hoolahan scores a beauty but Ireland left to rue missed chances in 1-1 with Sweden
Better than Euro 2012, but still should have been so much better than a 1-1 draw.
There’s no other way of spinning this ultimately frustrating opening game to the campaign for Ireland: it was a wasted opportunity against a weak Swedish side, and could well end up costing qualification for the last 16 given the nature of this group and the two heavyweights to come.
An initially spirited and committed display led to Wes Hoolahan’s brilliant 48th-minute opening goal, only to give way to an inherent Irish caution that was far more influential in this match than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s talent. Despite Martin O’Neill’s backline keeping him quiet in such an accomplished manner for so long, it was a case of Ireland eventually allowing him the space to do damage to force Ciaran Clark’s own goal, rather than Ibrahimovic creating that space himself.
For that, too, O’Neill will have to take some criticism despite the initial good work. Putting Clark in was his big decision before the game and, unfortunately, the centre-half made the most errors.
Ireland may have made a big mistake themselves in letting this win slip away. It could prevent them making history, and that should be really frustrating given the pattern of the game.
After a cautious start, when Ibrahimovic did offer one supreme turn to supposedly signal his willingness to seize this tournament, it was as if Ireland gradually realised there genuinely was very little to the Swedes beyond their obvious star.
Erik Hamren's offered nothing at that point and, little be little, O’Neill’s side began to offer more and more. It started with a Jeff Hendrick shot from the edge of the box, as if that was Ireland just testing how robust the Swedish were and how far they could take any attack.
The answer was very.
From there, Ireland began to commit more and more forward, and get closer and closer. John O’Shea should have scored from a set-piece, Hendrick smashed the crossbar with one of the moves of the game, and then the irrepressible Shane Long almost got his head to yet another divine Robbie Brady delivery.
At the centre of all this, of course, was Hoolahan. He raised the imagination of Ireland’s play any time he got the ball, and just generally elevated the quality of the game. The 34-year-old, finally making his debut on this kind of stage, was by far the best and most elegant player on it - and that’s really saying something when you have someone like Ibrahimovic on the pitch. They’re the same age, but have hardly had the same careers.
Then again, Ibrahimovic was hardly afford the space that he has enjoyed throughout so much of that career. The Swedish star could barely get a touch of the ball in the opening 55 minutes, as O’Neill has clearly come up with a plan.
Any time Ibrahimovic got on it, O’Shea and Clark immediately got close, with the excellent Glenn Whelan also coming back to complete the exclusion zone around him. It meant that Sweden could do little else, but Ireland could do a lot more
Because, having already raised the game, Hoolahan raised the roof.
On 48 minutes, Seamus Coleman did brilliantly to get down the right and beat Emil Forsberg - the Swedish winger that Coleman himself was meant to be defending - before clipping a fine ball in to the centre.
Good as the cross was, it still bounced awkwardly and was on Hoolahan’s wrong foot - only for Ireland’s finest technical player to so excellently keep it down, and send it in.
It was no more than Ireland deserved - only for them to immediately stop doing the kind of things that deserved a win.
It was a remarkable case study in the psychology of a goal. Now it was Ireland that looked like a nothing side, and Sweden who had something beyond Zlatan, or rather people he could play off.
The pressure grew and grew, and the warning was there when Clark sliced a corner back towards his own goal that Darren Randolph had to push away. Ireland had a let-off when Forsberg drove the ball wide from just yards out, but it was asking a little too much to keep stepping off and expecting the same.
So, Ibrahimovic finally stepped up. On 71 minutes, he drove down the right and squared - only for Clark to divert the ball into his own net.
Once again, it was only what Ireland deserved. They had lost the initiative.
They could well have lost the game - when the harsh truth is that the win should have been sealed long before.
A wasted opportunity.
Ireland: Randolph: Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Brady; McCarthy (McGeady 85), Whelan, Hendrick; Hoolahan (Keane 78); Walters (McClean 63), Long
Sweden: Isaksson; Lustig (Johansson 45), Lindelof, Granqvist, M Olsson; Larsson, Lewicki (Ekdal 86), Kallstrom, Forsberg; Berg (Guidetti 59), Ibrahimovic