PARIS – Goals can do strange things to teams. When Wes Hoolahan put Ireland ahead three minutes onto the second half, Martin O’Neill’s side seemed wholly dominant, quicker, stronger, smarter than Sweden. But scoring seemed to conjure in it a terror and it fell deeper and deeper, inviting Sweden to attack, culminating in an own goal from Ciaran Clark, induced by some effective play–at last–from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a 1-1 draw at Stade de France.
Ten years ago, working as a television pundit, O’Neill had described Ibrahimovic as “the most overrated player on the planet.” Reminded of that this week, O’Neill admitted he had been wrong, describing him as “a top-class player” and “one of the best in Europe.” He is, though, now 34, the energy and the magic are beginning to wane.
The problem in this Sweden side is that Ibrahimovic is so clearly the best player in it, or, more fairly, given the players beginning to emerge from the side that won the Under-21 European Championship (two of them, the center back Victor Lindelof and the central midfielder Oscar Lewicki started here, and John Guidetti came on as well), the most famous player in it. The sense of Zlatan-plus-10 is clear, and that can lead to indulgence and wastefulness.
To take just one example, 21 minutes in, Sweden won a free kick 35 yards out. Zlatan took it, as everybody knew he would, and despite the ridiculously low odds of scoring, he shot. It scuffed into the wall.
There was a spinning backheel on the halfway line to give the ball back to Lewicki and a speculative volley as a half-cleared corner was returned to the box, but this was a very quiet Ibrahimovic, constantly having to drop back into midfield to try to get involved in a game Ireland had under control for long spells. Sweden was desperately poor in the first half, as though playing to highlight the folly of expending the tournament to 24 teams.
It would be easy to sneer that there were three Norwich players (Ireland's Robbie Brady and Hoolihan and Sweden's Martin Olsson) on the pitch, but all three posed genuine attacking menace (even though two of them played at left back).
Whatever the carping about the general quality, Ireland was far, far better than it had been in the opening game of the last Euros, when it lost 3-1 to Croatia, effectively eliminating it after one game. Brady, pushing on from left back, linked well with Jeff Hendrick on the left side of midfield–perhaps not surprisingly given they first played together for St Kevin’s Boys when they were 6 years old. Hoolahan too, so often distrusted by national managers, was a constant probing presence.
Ireland went off to a standing ovation at halftime and the only concern can have been that it didn’t already have the game won.
John O’Shea hadn’t been quite able to adjust his feet quickly enough to turn the ball in as Ciaran Clark’s header flashed across goal and then Hedrick had hit the bar with a long-range curler. It was Hoolahan, another Norwich player, who finally broke through three minutes into the second half, ramming the ball in first time from beyond the back post after Seamus Coleman’s cross had evaded everybody.
There came an unexpected Swedish surge, during which Darren Randolph made a brilliant low stop to his right as Clark’s sliced clearance diverted a corner towards his own net and then Emil Forsberg crashed the rebound wide. Ireland, it seemed, having taken the lead, suddenly felt the spotlight upon it, the possibility of a first win in the tournament since 1988.
Up until then, Ireland had done a fine job of denying Ibrahimovic space, O’Shea, Clark and Glenn Whelan packing tight around him. But as Ireland began to wobble, so Ibrahimovic began to look more dangerous. Holding off Clark, he hooked a volley just wide from a Martin Olsson cross. Then 19 minutes from full time, the equalizer came. Ibrahimovic ran on to Guidetti’s flick and sent in a cross that Clark headed past Randolph–the natural result of the anxiety Ireland had shown since taking the lead.
Once the equalizer had gone in, Ireland rallied again, but by then it was too late. Sweden will regroup and surely won’t be this bad again, but for Ireland there must be a dreadful sense of an opportunity missed. 1-1 has become a default scoreline for the Irish at major tournaments–this was its seventh–but this was only the second time it had drawn having been ahead.
Given Sweden didn’t manage a single shot on target, the predominant emotion must be frustration. A draw, in the end, is perhaps a result of most use to the other two sides in the group, Belgium and Italy.