Keep Zlatan Ibrahimovic quiet and the game will be there for the taking; that was the general consensus going into the last night’s clash against Sweden at the Stade de France.
Martin O’Neill had endured so much pre-game pressure, planning for France since qualification last November and then trying to pick a squad to best serve at the tournament.
Preparations were far from ideal with many players missing out on a lot of club football through injury or non-selection, but the manager stayed loyal to those who helped Ireland qualify.
And finally, that opening game arrived and it was time to see if all those plans would bear fruit in front of a 80,000 sell-out crowd at the Stade de France.
With all the bad press emanating from Marseilles, and then Nice, this tournament needed an injection of happiness, and there was not a bad vibe to be experienced in north Paris as both sets of supporters exchanged chants and mingled all the way from the Eiffel Tower Fanzone to the Paris banlieue.
The Irish system was working as long balls out of defence were chased relentlessly
The friendly atmosphere continued into the stadium, which filled up long before kick-off – a novel experience for the Irish fans, it must be said.
And so it began. Naturally, all eyes were drawn to Ibrahimovic, but it wasn’t long before that attention subsided as Ireland’s high-tempo game was causing an incredible amount of problems in the Swedish defence.
Glenn Whelan saw to that. The Stoke City midfielder sat just in front of the centre-halves, keeping watch over that most impressive figure of Ibrahimovic,
“I thought the players played him exceptionally well,” admitted O’Neill after the game. “We forced him away from our goal as much as we possibly could and it worked a treat. And the players have to take great credit for that.”
While Whelan was keeping an eye over both shoulders, the striker’s threat eased, for the time being at least, which allowed the holding midfield to look forward.
When he wasn’t passing, he was pointing, guiding fellow players Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy into the space to close down the yellow jerseys.
Sweden’s only threat came down the left-hand side as Martin Olsson linked up well with Emil Forsberg, keeping Seamus Coleman’s attacking game to a minimum.
The Irish system was working as long balls out of defence were chased relentlessly, which allowed O’Neill’s side to play the game in their opponents’ half.
Even the Ireland manager must have been surprised by the amount of chances that his side created, and while they would eventually rue those missed efforts, O’Neill beamed with pride after the game, regarding his players performances.
And having shown such loyalty with his squad selection, last night’s game was a chance for the players to repay that manager’s faith by performing on the pitch.
Needless to say, the manager appreciated the effort.
“We were fantastic, really fantastic. I don’t know how we didn’t come in maybe three in front (at half-time),” O’Neill told RTÉ Sport. “The play today was really great.”
The manager admitted that he didn’t need to say much to the players at the break, following that exceptional first-half performance.
“I didn’t have to say too much to the players. They were great, dominant in the game.”
But whatever was said, the Irish team came flying out of the blocks in the second half and it wasn’t long before the already noisy Irish crowd really had something to shout about.
The wheels began to fall off the wagon, and first to go was the Irish system
There are moments in football when instinct takes over, but Wes Hoolahan appeared to have an eternity as he watched that ball drift all the way across the Sweden goal.
So it was always going to be about technique and the former Shelbourne man made no mistake with a fine half-volley.
But then the wheels began to fall off the wagon, and first to go was the Irish system as Jon Walters had given all that he could, considering he felt a twinge in his Achilles in the early minutes of the game.
“The formation essentially didn’t change that much; what was happening is that Sweden were getting a bit of joy down the left-hand side,” explained the manager.
“They were marauding as we were getting tired. Of course, when they get the equalising goal, it gives you that extra energy for a period of time.
“That was a concern, they were getting in down that left-hand side for the last 15 minutes of the game.”
The evening sun started to drop behind the northern skies and so did the energy levels of the Irish players.
The Irish still had 25 minutes to see out but as the Swedes attacked both flanks, the signs were ominous.
Zlatan had become more of a team player in the second half and got involved in the fight, and when his head remained high, so did those of his disciples.
Next to fade was the spirit.
With so many players without first-team football and carrying injuries, the performance got ragged and the inevitable happened.
Goalscorer turned provider as it was Zlatan’s delivery that led to the goal.
Finally the hearts started to break as it looked like Sweden would go on and win the game.
The Ireland manager, whether rightly or wrongly, tried to counter the Swedish pressure by making attack-minded substitutions, with Robbie Keane given a chance to shine.
The LA Galaxy man failed to contribute and the manager was perhaps lucky not to lose all three points in the end. The final whistle, thankfully, arrived.
While there was a real sense of disappointment with the draw considering those first-half chances, it won’t take long before this Ireland side will replenish their hearts and minds and take great belief into the Belgium game.
The one thing that will have pleased the manager the most was the quality of his side’s play at times in last night’s gruelling encounter and the levels of composure shown by many of his players throughout.
“The players looked accomplished today,” beamed O’Neill after the game. “We have desire, we have the never-say-die spirit But I thought they looked accomplished and I think that’s players growing into international football.”