New-look Ireland make their point
Sweden 0 Ireland 0
TIME will tell if the Friends Arena will be remembered as the place where Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland won some supporters back but this was a hugely encouraging step in the right direction.
After a typically chaotic build-up, Ireland regained their old solidity against a Swedish side short on inspiration, their performance summed up by Zlatan Ibrahimovic's lethargy. At the final whistle, the away end resounded to a chorus of 'You'll Never Beat The Irish', a song that threatened to become a parody during a souring Euro 2012 and the bruising aftermath which leaked into the start of this World Cup campaign. "We looked back to the unit we had before then," said skipper John O'Shea. "And now we have to keep this going. It's very positive."
This deserved draw can be added to the list of notable results on the road under Trapattoni and maintains his unbeaten record in away qualifiers, the most impressive aspect of his tenure.
All week, various members of the Irish camp had admitted that a point was the minimum they could afford to take from this exercise. Robbie Keane acknowledged the cost of defeat would have been grave, and Trapattoni knew that too, especially as it would have implications for his own position given the soundings from his employers.
Now, with part one of the mission achieved, the focus turns to Tuesday, where his new-look team have to take full points from the visit of Austria.
"They are a strong team, Austria, I know them well," said the Irish boss. "But we have achieved a good result here and it can increase our confidence. We have not suffered much pressure from Sweden, that will give our players belief."
His satisfaction was understandable considering his plans for this game were hindered by a late injury to Glenn Whelan. James McCarthy, deemed unsuitable for the task on Thursday, was thrust into the breach next to Paul Green and showed his worth.
"James is going to be a major, major player for Ireland," enthused O'Shea.
This can be his coming of his age, and his partnership with Green clicked. Robbie Brady won't be feeling so good this morning as the prospect of an extremely youthful midfield meant that Jon Walters was given an SOS call, a blow to Brady given that the manager had criticised his psychological well-being while tentatively naming him in his initial XI.
"It was a strange one and a bold decision," said O'Shea, "But Robbie will be ready for Tuesday. Jonny came in and gave everything."
The latter praise could be afforded to the entirety of the Irish side, with a newly constructed rearguard making a big statement, with David Forde called into action in both halves, but protected throughout by a back four where Seamus Coleman, Ciaran Clark and Marc Wilson announced their arrival.
After the uncertainty beforehand, the Irish approach to the first 15 minutes was always going to be informative. They started excellently, producing the collective effort that had been demanded of them. McCarthy was bright, showing a willingness to get on the ball, James McClean was a bundle of energy, desperate to seize the opportunity. Meanwhile, as Ibrahimovic eased himself into the game, O'Shea and Clark settled, protected by Green. It gave Ireland a base, and they could have snatched an early advantage.
McClean, who was giving Mikael Lustig a difficult time of it, swung in a corner that skipper Robbie Keane should have controlled. Ireland pressed with intent, and a first-time McCarthy pass released Shane Long, who twisted and turned to leave Andreas Granqvist on his backside before, crucially, sending his shot into the stands close to where the green travelling support were now making the most noise. "A big chance," sighed Trapattoni later. Still, Ireland took heart, and McCarthy will not want to watch the replays of a sloppy pass to McClean after the Sunderland star's initial endeavour left the visitors with a man over on a counter.
Ibrahimovic began to drop deeper, frustrated by a lack of service, and his presence did allow the hosts to spring some passes together. Tobias Hysen, his stand-in strike partner, tested Forde and the new Irish No 1 then dived smartly to his right to touch away a free from centurion Kim Kallstrom, which Wilson had softly given away. The most alarming moment of the half came 10 minutes shy of the break where, firstly, the defence stood back to allow Alexander Kacaniklic run at them, with the Fulham man teeing up Ibrahimovic whose shot was deflected wide off Coleman. Then, from the corner, Forde totally mistimed his jump, and was blessed that 'Ibra' did the same with his header. With Sweden now sharper in possession and Ireland struggling to maintain their early intensity, the whistle was welcome. Indeed, it was preceded by a booking for Green and a nervy moment when Wilson's clearance from a Kallstrom free came dangerously close to his own goal.
Hamren used the interval to make a change, with Lustig replaced by Mikael Antonsson and Granqvist redeployed to the right side of defence. Ireland tried again to peg the natives back and had some joy. The problem was that even when they worked themselves into promising situations, they were short of numbers in the box, with Coleman making that point to the Italian when berated for not releasing the ball into the area early on one occasion.
As the hour mark approached, the home crowd briefly turned up the volume when the Irish right side dosed and left-full Behrang Safari was allowed to advance too easily before an unconvincing Clark clearance was swept wide by Sebastian Larsson.
But Ireland hit back with a threatening moment of their own with Keane picking the wrong option upon collecting a Green chip, lofting it when a daisycutting cross might have reached Walters.
With 20 minutes left, the locals were showing some disquiet, and Ibrahimovic was dishing out some abuse too. Hamren introduced Ola Toivonen for Hysen, In response, Trapattoni summoned Wes Hoolahan for his competitive bow, and the Norwich trickster did well despite the fact that the game now had a certain inevitability about it. Andy Keogh and Conor Sammon were duly sent in, but there was a sense that the away side were not going to do anything hasty, as evidenced when Keogh took the steam out of one break and calmly involved Coleman, who did likewise.
There was a scare at the death when Rasmus Elm's deflected effort forced Forde into a late stop that preceded the final whistle. "I congratulated him afterwards," said Trapattoni, while O'Shea praised his concentration.
If it's equally tight in the final stages on Tuesday, the Lansdowne Road will expect their team to go hell for leather but the approach in the final quarter was perfectly acceptable here. This was a point gained – now for three more.