The Group E draw with Sweden was one that got away from us, a victory we should have achieved but didn’t. Because, while it was a very, very good performance, it wasn’t perfect. And the critical imperfection in it was that we didn’t control the game after we took the lead.
I know, of course, that there will be a natural ebb and flow to most games of football at this level, so Sweden were always going to come into it, which they duly did after Wes Hoolahan’s goal, when they began to push more bodies forward.
But that was the precisely the point at which we needed to apply some authority, be better on the ball and show more composure in defence. Instead, we looked a bit panicky and lacking in leadership — and ultimately we paid the price.
And that price could be very hefty. A win against Sweden would probably have been good enough to take us to the next stage; Now I’m fearful that we’ve already lost that opportunity.
But that’s me speaking as someone on the outside, looking in. The manager and the players simply cannot afford to think like that. They will have to see the point on the board and the quality of much of the Irish performance as positives to build on, when they go in search of the win — or possibly the two draws — they are now likely to need from the games against Belgium and Italy in order to stay in the tournament.
I have to say that — taking Gibraltar out of the equation — I’ve never seen an Irish team have so many efforts on goal against decent opposition. Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady, and Hendrick again all had shots. We went close with John O’Shea. Overall, we dominated to the extent I thought we were really unlucky to be going in at half-time with the game still scoreless. If we’d had any good fortune at all, it could have been 2-0 to Ireland at the break.
But let’s not kid ourselves: this wasn’t what you could call a slick performance. For that we had to wait until later Monday when Italy beat Belgium. The Italians, now they were slick. Cool, calm, and fluent.
By contrast, we didn’t put many moves together against Sweden. But we were first to the ball, we were physically strong and we never afforded the Swedes any time or space. Jon Walters and Shane Long were constantly chasing back to make things difficult for them. Glenn Whelan, who was terrific, was on the toes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic whenever he was on the ball and, when Sweden’s dangerman got in around our box, the centre-backs were quick to get tight on him too.
Our game-plan was executed really well and, on top of that, there was that refreshing determination to get shots in on the Swedish goal as well as crosses into their box, mainly from Brady.
When we did play a little more expansively, the inspiration came as ever from Wes Hoolahan. It was him getting on the ball that instigated most of our combination moves, proving what I’ve long since maintained: he’s the one who really makes us play. And that’s exactly what he did again on Monday night.
And it all came to brilliant fruition for him and for the team with Ireland deservedly taking the lead early in the second half. The move went from left to right, and when you build up like that it allows the full-backs to arrive at the right time. We didn’t see enough of Seamus Coleman doing that over the course of the whole game because James McCarthy went missing when he needed to dictate the play in the middle of the park. But on this occasion, McCarthy was there to slip the ball to Coleman, and Coleman is one of our better players at taking defenders out of it with dribbles. Which is what he did before clipping a lovely ball over - and Hoolahan, of course, finished beautifully.
McCarthy continues to frustrate with tentative performances. If he is to justify retaining his place in this team then I believe he really has to start taking more responsibility and imposing himself on games.
But he wasn’t the only Irish player to lose his way in the little over 20 minutes between our goal and Sweden’s equaliser. There was a general lack of leadership in defence and midfield, no-one to say, ‘c’mon, let’s get a grip, let’s get tight and when we do get the ball, let’s calm things down and keep it. Let them chase it and let us mount some counter-attacks’.
That’s what was needed but nothing like that happened, with the result that, as Ronnie Whelan said in the RTÉ commentary, there was an increasing sense that the Swedish goal was coming. However, let’s be clear, it wasn’t as if Sweden were opening us up. It was more that our defending was now as uncertain as it had been assured in the first half.
That may partly have been down to the familiar psychology in football whereby the team that goes a goal in front suddenly feels under pressure to try to hold onto the lead. But the disappointing thing is that no Irish player looked like getting a grip of the situation before we did finally concede what turned out to be a pretty scrappy equaliser, even if the otherwise anonymous Ibrahimovic did show one flash of brilliance before forcing Clark to put through his own goal.
The irony is that there was a good reaction from us after they did score but, as the final result shows, it was that 20-minute spell when we really lacked vital composure which ultimately denied us the win. Hence why this was not the complete performance which that encouraging first half display had suggested it was going to be.
In the context of the challenges to come, the news that Jon Walters could miss either or both of our remaining group fixtures is a blow. But this can happen in tournament football and someone else is just going to have to step up to the plate — maybe James McClean, Stephen Quinn, or Aiden McGeady.
A big question now is what kind of mood Belgium will be in when we meet them in Bordeaux on Saturday. We wondered before the start of the tournament if the Belgians would finally deliver as a collective on their individual ability and, on that score, they were definitely found wanting against wily Italy.
Essentially, what Belgium came up against in Lyon was a masterclass in experience and know-how for which the likes of Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne simply didn’t have any answers. In stark contrast, for Italy there was Buffon, Chiellini, Barzagli, De Rossi — guys that have been around the block a few times. I’m sure they relished the fact that they were taking on the much hyped new kids on the block — and they really put them in their place.
But that big setback for Belgium could be a double-edged sword for us. Will they now be determined to show the doubters that they really are a top team by taking Ireland apart? Or are they going to be throwing their dummies out of the pram, with the players pointing the finger at the coach and him pointing his straight back at them?
If there is some disarray in the Belgian camp, that would give us a much better chance of replicating the great performance against Sweden.
So after one round of games, am I more optimistic about Ireland’s chances of progress on the basis of their display against Sweden or more pessimistic because of the result of that game? I suspect many people know me well enough by now: I’m more of a pessimist than an optimist. But the important point is that, while I can afford to be feeling sorry for Ireland that they didn’t get the win, the team and the management can’t.
I still feel that the match against the Swedes was our best chance in Group E of getting a win and three points on the board. And, after their victory over Belgium, I’m less confident about our chances of getting something against this Italian team than I was before the tournament when I thought they might really struggle in the absence of a number of key players.
One thing we have going for us is the platform of a very good performance. But I can’t help being fearful that the fact we weren’t able to press on to victory against Sweden will ultimately mean we won’t be getting out of this group.
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