Ibrahimovic ends Ireland's dreams of Rio
IRELAND 1 SWEDEN 2
THIS was a triumph for the brilliant unpredictability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic over the weary predictability of a docket that is now busted.
On a night where Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland needed to win, they failed to even meet the familiar 'must not lose' requirement. When the FAI board opted to stick with the 74-year-old last October, this was the nightmare scenario. Not good enough then, not good enough now.
Depression hung in the air at the full-time whistle, replacing the unnerving optimism beforehand, with the natives aware that the World Cup dream is effectively over barring an unlikely sequence of results. Even if Ireland win in Austria next Tuesday, they somehow have to make up four points on Sweden over the last three matches given that Erik Hamren's side have a superior goal difference. The victors travel to Kazakhstan next and then host Germany and Austria next month, whereas Ireland finish with a trip to Koln and then the visit of the Kazakhstanis.
If the Swedes triumph in Astana, it's hard to see how Ireland can catch them and that's before even winning in Vienna, an outcome that seems unlikely on the strength of this display.
For Trapattoni, it is a sad push towards the end of the road. This was always going to be his last campaign but he was keen to go out in style, in the spiritual home of football in Brazil.
Instead, we face the prospect of a miserable October. Faced with questions on his future, he mounted a defence of his tenure. "We've done a great job, not just a good job, a great job," he stressed.
Yet he was also unable to contest Hamren's observation that Ireland's approach was long ball rather than anything more sophisticated. In big matches, this team reverts to type and is incapable of delivering assertive performances on home soil. One point from nine in major Dublin tests against Germany, Sweden and Austria is a damning total; the boos at the end delivered the verdict that matters most.
Depending on events in Vienna, the FAI may have a decision to make as early as next week. At the end, Hamren celebrated like a man who had the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. Trapattoni walked down the tunnel, possibly for the last time at this venue.
A different script appeared to be developing at the outset.
Both teams came into this game under pressure, and there was a panicked nature to the opening quarter where a lot happened without actually providing clear-cut chances.
Ireland kicked off with vigour, pressing the Swedes with a pumped-up Shane Long almost unable to contain his enthusiasm, with positive moments merged with rash fouls. Irish physicality forced promising situations – Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan took aim without giving Andreas Isaksson anything much to think about.
At the other end, Ibrahimovic eased himself into the game with some rough treatment from John O'Shea welcoming him to proceedings. If anything, it only served to fire up the majestic playmaker.
In many ways, Ireland's full-blooded approach was personified by James McClean, a bundle of energy who may lack subtlety at times but still gave Mikael Lustig plenty to think about with a twist and turn followed by a cross that dropped onto the crossbar and away to safety.
Swedish concerns coming into this encounter revolved around their rearguard, though, with Hamren unsure of his best combination. The lack of cohesion was apparent in the genesis of Ireland's opener. There was little danger for Lustig when he covered a Long flick, but he attempted a header back to Isaksson that was hopelessly underclubbed. Robbie Keane pounced, clipping the ball under the advancing 'keeper and while it came back off the post, it caught the heel of the retreating Lustig, thus outfoxing Mikael Antonsson and falling for Keane, who regained balance to smash into the roof of the net.
The delirious crowd sensed blood as Ireland temporarily went in search of a second. This is Ireland, though, it's never that simple. The yellow shirts stirred and should have equalised from a counter attack that culminated with a sumptuous Ibrahimovic flick for Seb Larsson, who inexplicably headed wide from six yards.
A let-off for Ireland, yet the sense of relief was short lived. Sweden probed again, Lustig demonstrated his effectiveness in terms of delivering crosses into the box and Johan Elmander grabbed half a yard on Dunne to fire a header past David Forde.
Ireland were back to the start without the intensity, and the half-time whistle was welcome with Dunne booked just before it for chopping down Ibrahimovic. Trapattoni encouraged Walters and McClean to swap wings at the break, and the latter took aim following the resumption, yet key performers Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy were struggling to impact in the right positions, a situation that they both sought to address. A promising Coleman cameo was followed by a major scare, however, when Ibrahimovic dropped into space and threaded a through ball for Larsson, who was stopped by a fine Forde save.
Alas, a moment for Larsson to forget was quickly followed by another advance that ended in disaster with Ibrahimovic again dropping into a pocket and teeing up veteran Anders Svensson, who caught Forde by surprise with a first-time daisycutter that the Millwall man could have prevented from finding the net. The 37-year-old, winning his 143rd cap, had slipped away from Whelan.
Now we were in crisis territory and Trapattoni, who had spoken about having options, initially sent for Simon Cox and then for debutant Anthony Pilkington as McClean and Walters were withdrawn and management plumped for more of the same with different personnel; Wes Hoolahan and injury doubt Robbie Brady were unwanted, with Trapattoni wary of a reshuffle. "It would be difficult to get into the pace of the game," he insisted.
A Swedish error offered a lifeline but, with Keane in the centre, Long was too slow to square. It was a snapshot of the night, as promise was replaced by disappointment and, eventually, anguish.
Rio will be somebody else's party.
Game at a glance
Robbie Keane (Ireland)
Playing his 128th game for his country, Keane showed the best of his predatory instincts by slamming the ball into the Swedish net after just 22 minutes. Robbie was up for the challenge from the word go and it wasn't his fault Ireland failed to win.
The opening goal of the match by Keane. It lifted the home support into a frenzy and rocked the Swedes. He needed two goes at it, but made sure at the second attempt.
This was a must-win match. We didn't get the coveted three points. The tendency to self-destruct, as happened at home against Austria, derailed the Irish chances. Time for a change of manager.
Referee Damir Skomina from Slovenia showed a bit of latitude to Richard Dunne whose lack of match fitness, especially at this level, showed in a few lax tackles, and the ref couldn't be blamed for awarding Dunne a first-half yellow.
Giovanni Trapattoni sent out a team with lots of positivity and decent balance. Not much he could do about slack defending that let in Johan Elmander and Anders Svensson for the two Swedish goals.
They came in their thousands to and the strong Swedish support raised the decibel level. The home fans did their best to lift the Irish players too. No marks for cheering the idiot who ran onto the pitch and caused a delay late in the game.
Ireland 5 (3 first half)
Sweden 13 (6)
Ireland 7 (5)
Sweden 3 (2)
Ireland 1 (0)
Sweden 3 (2)
Ireland 7 (3)
Sweden 5 (5)
Ireland 2 (Dunne 37, Whelan 81)
- LIAM KELLY