Unhappy ending to night of Irish promise
Ireland 1-1 Sweden
This was the one that got away. Martin O'Neill couldn't dress it up any differently."I should be speaking to you here with three points instead of one," he sighed, a theme that ran through his press conference. The sombre mood was a comedown from an occasion that looked like becoming one of the great Irish football evenings.
Unfortunately, it went downhill from the beautiful moment that Wes Hoolahan scored a superb goal on the stage that his talent has always deserved to grace. The quirks of this format meant that his 48th-minute half volley nudged Ireland towards the round of 16.
But in a role reversal from a campaign where O'Neill's men retrieved a number of points from grim positions, they lost composure and ended up sharing the spoils with a limited Sweden side that was incapable of mustering a shot on target between them. Ciaran Clark's own goal saved their day.
"Credit to Ireland," said Swedish coach Erik Hamren. "They really showed up."
The admission hammered home the sense of disappointment that the Irish players wore on their faces at the final whistle. They will have to summon the underdog spirit against Belgium and Italy to stay in this competition; this was the fixture where they had no reason to feel inferior.
O'Neill's players set out with a strategy that did concentrate on keeping Zlatan Ibrahimovic under tight supervision. They succeeded in keeping him quiet with Glenn Whelan his main pursuer and his colleagues taking responsibility when the PSG star drifted into their zone.
"I thought we played him exceptionally well," said the Irish boss (right).
That gave the green shirts the platform to dominate in other areas and they rose to that challenge when the game was scoreless. In a sharp contrast from the abject failure of Poland four years ago, they seized control of the occasion and that breeds optimism for the tough 180 minutes lying ahead.
It was the youngsters that showed the way with long-term colleagues Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick - doing their bit to keep the average down at 24 - providing the spark to bring Ireland into opposition territory. They were at the heart of the opportunities that should have yielded an opener.
"We should have at least been one goal in front at half-time," said O'Neill.
Hendrick smashed the crossbar after a pass from Brady and a one-two with Long, a more agonising miss than an earlier attempt which was parried to safety by Andreas Isaksson.
"I've always had great faith in Jeff," said the proud manager. "He accepted the responsibility."
However, the best chance to go ahead was squandered before the quarter hour mark when Brady's corner was flicked across the six-yard box by Clark and the off-balance John O'Shea was unable to contort his body into a position where he could apply the final touch.
What pleased O'Neill was the sharpness of Ireland's application. Hoolahan was quiet in the early stages but he grew into the match in a stint before the interval that hinted at what this group are capable of.
With Brady and Hendrick dovetailing on the left, Ireland had a dual threat even if they badly missed a fully-fit Jon Walters who only lasted an hour and is a major doubt for the remainder of the competition because of an Achilles problem that prevented him from sprinting. "I thought the players looked accomplished," asserted O'Neill. "We have desire and never-say-die but they looked accomplished."
That quality was evident in the breakthrough goal. The manager actually played his part too, urging Hoolahan to take a quick throw which set the wheels in motion.
Eventually, the ball was worked to Seamus Coleman who jinked and darted down the right before teasing in the cross that was gleefully converted by the technical wizardry of the 34-year-old man of the match.
Ireland were in dreamland. Then, they fell asleep.
By the hour mark, Sweden should have levelled things up during a spell that was a portent of things to come.
They won corners that caused unnecessary panic at the heart of the Irish defence and Darren Randolph saved brilliantly from an attempted Clark clearance.
O'Neill selected the Aston Villa player ahead of Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh and he was excellent in the first 45, doing his bit alongside John O'Shea to keep a beady eye on Ibrahimovic as well as suppressing Marcus Berg.
When Ibrahimovic nipped away from O'Shea with 20 minutes remaining, Clark saw danger coming but was unable to avoid adding to it by steering a speculative cross into the net with the horrified Randolph watching on.
It would be too simplistic to the pin the blame on the centre-half, however.
Fittingly, the goal came from Sweden's left side. That's where they made hay.
O'Neill's midfield diamond sacrifices width and it worked when Ireland were on the front foot and the full-backs pushed forward.
But in the period after the breakthrough, Sweden's left full Martin Olsson grew in prominence and Coleman was outnumbered.
James McCarthy worked hard but a booking for persistent fouling left him on the brink of disaster and he began to toil, while Hendrick suddenly started to look like a player that hasn't played very much football in the past three months.
In truth, the biggest loss was Walters. The extraordinary team effort in holding onto a lead against Germany was defined by his marauding presence, an ability to cover Ireland's full-backs in tandem with troubling the opposition defence.
He was unable to perform that service and just about lasted the hour; it would be a cruel blow if he was ruled out of the remainder.
James McClean was introduced in his place and he pitched up on the left, yet it was the other flank that was in bother. The Derry man only touched the ball nine times.
"There was an element of fatigue," said O'Neill. "They were getting in down that left-hand side.
"We put an awful lot of work in. I don't know how much ground Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy covered. James hasn't played in some time. They were tired; players get tired."
The 64-year-old looked for switches that might win the game. Robbie Keane was introduced for Hoolahan - the Norwich player said his calf was tight - and the skipper would only manage three touches.
Late on, Aiden McGeady was summoned to help Coleman and attempt to conjure some magic. The subs didn't fire although the problem is that O'Neill didn't really have any other recognised match-winners to turn to.
He did have legs to protect the lead and the mistake here was letting it go against an average opponent.
The clearest sight of a clincher came in the immediate aftermath of Clark's misfortune when Hendrick called Isaksson into action. Thereafter, it was nervy stuff.
"There is disappointment in the dressing room but I don't think the players should be downhearted. They should be thrilled by what they have achieved," said O'Neill.
This morning they will be down, but they are certainly not out.