Sport Soccer

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: Hopes in tatters as old failings resurface

Shane Long leaves the pitch at the final whistle
Shane Long leaves the pitch at the final whistle
Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni grimaces as he watches from the sidelines.
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

If the dream isn't dead, there's an audible rattle in its throat now. September caught a sudden, wintry bite in the palsied Lansdowne bowl last night and a World Cup in Brazil feels out of reach now.

Ireland fought the good fight, but hope just couldn't defy gravity here. Their path intersected with a better team and Giovanni, thus, will go to Vienna next week seeing out time.

Anders Svensson's 57th-minute goal was a kind of sedative in the end. It put a certain order on the evening, Sweden coming from behind to win a nervy, rambunctious battle.

And, almost inevitably, the fingerprints of Zlatan Ibrahimovic were on the story. It was his deliciously threaded pass that fed Svensson for the decisive strike, his personality that pretty much owned the whole stadium's attention.

If Sweden have an Achilles heel, it is that they lean so heavily on a man prone to bouts of bad weather in his head. At times, Zlatan seems unreadable to those around him, one moment furiously engaged, the next haughty and ambivalent. For every compelling day of his football life, there is another lost through boredom.

PHYSIQUE

He has the physique to tear down buildings with bare hands, yet sometimes a gust of wind seems enough to thieve his balance. You can recognise deference in the carriage of certain team-mates around him. They know that Zlatan is alone in what he can deliver. They also know that he is moody, impatient, sporadically unreliable. It is his world, they just live in it.

So he is a manager's dream and curse, gently interwoven as one.

His remarkable bicycle-kick goal against England last November (one of a paltry four he sniped that night) spoke of unassailable talent but, watching him in Richard Dunne's aggressive company last night, you occasionally got the little boy lost too, the pouting child's face atop that Charles Atlas frame. It is like some kind of self-regulation that he gets drawn to. A compulsion to remind people of just how feckless he can be.

It being All-Ireland hurling final weekend, you couldn't but think that an hour in, say, Brian Murphy or Cian Dillon's company at Croke Park tomorrow might educate him on what man-marking really means.

For here we saw him at his most wonderful and most confounding. Dunne stuck to him like a catheter, but ultimately the ponytail got the better of the wardrobe.

Just four minutes into this game, his free-kick thundered into the Irish wall, knocking Seamus Coleman backwards like a skittle. That kind of circus-strongman power isn't often associated with musical feet. It makes him terrifying.

Minutes later, he rolled another free tepidly into Shane Long's midriff. One man, two faces.

Actually, Robbie Keane's goal caught the Zlatan paradox in microcosm. Ibrahimovic had pressed high on David Forde when the Irish goalkeeper launched the ball that would reach his captain via Shane Long. By the time Sweden assembled for the restart, their leader was still in ponderous retreat from Irish territory. At such times, he can look like a guy waiting for an airport shuttle.

He did place one sublime ball onto an unmarked Seb Larsson's head only for the Sunderland man to inexplicably miss. That was just minutes before Johan Elmander's equaliser and a subsequent booking for Dunne for rattling into the special one.

The Zlatan fascination apart, the game had an engaging but unremarkable feel. It bore the air of a mid-table Premier League battle, both teams playing 4-4-2, both roller-coasting into tackles with discernible relish.

Trap's regeneration hasn't been to everybody's taste, particularly those who yearn for Wes Hoolahan's guile. The mechanics of the team tend to be resolutely safe and practical. He mistrusts the kind of maverick movement Hoolahan brings to that corridor between midfield and attack.

Eleven minutes after Svensson's goal, Simon Cox was sent on for Jon Walters, workmanlike replacing workmanlike. Trap drawn, as ever, to tinkering more than change.

But there remains a moxy about Ireland that, on the good days, can inconvenience better teams. Men like Dunne and John O'Shea and Glenn Whelan don't over-analyse their business. To some degree, they apply rules of their own.

So what you get with Ireland is relentless application and, in Keane, an authentic world-class finisher. The skipper's 60th international goal was a typical essay of bravery and class, first beating Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson to a wayward back-header, then reacting quickest when his effort came off the upright.

All night, Keane looked capable of mining something from a nervy central partnership of Per Nilsson and Mikael Antonsson, the chemistry of the Swedes atrocious. At times, they seemed to carom off one another like two footballs in the boot of a speeding car.

But the bigger point of the night was Ireland's struggle to ask them refined questions.

We huffed and we puffed, we chased lost causes, we expended every conceivable ounce of energy without, frankly, giving Isaksson much to fret about.

The booing at the end was ugly and undeserved and Trap absorbed it with the look of a man who knows this odyssey is over. A win in Austria on Tuesday might, of course, resuscitate fragile hope, but it is difficult to see.

Ireland are not in the habit of beating even middling teams on their own patch.

The last significant scalp taken in a competitive away game was Scotland's at Hampden in '87. Quarter of a century and still waiting.

The road to Rio is closed.

Irish Independent

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