L’Equipe, France’s daily sports bible, ran a piece on the eve of the tournament on the players most likely to take our breath away and leave a glittering body of work in their wake.
They headlined it: ‘The Galaxy of Stars’.
The inclusion of Wayne Rooney, regardless of the fact that he was landed with the label of enigma, took some of the gloss from it, but the context was clear: This was going to be a tournament about great individuals rather than great teams.
Like Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had his own detractors. Joey Barton displayed a typical bluntness by telling the French paper that the Swede’s track record on big stages like the Champions League was suspect, but no-one has ever denied that he is the centre of his national team’s universe.
Strip away the ego, time-consuming as that would be, and see that Ibrahimovic had scored 62 goals in 112 games for his country. His beholden-to-no-one-or-nothing persona extends to a refusal to be restricted by anything so routine as positions or formation.
Rightly or wrongly, he had dominated this build-up.
Liam Brady wrote in these pages yesterday of his fears that Martin O’Neill would order one of his midfielders to tail Zlatan like an obedient pup and that this could have the knock-on effect of Wes Hoolahan falling out of the first XI.
We can all be grateful it didn’t come to that.
News that Hoolahan would start was a statement of intent that contrasted starkly with what happened in Nice the day before, when O’Neill’s namesake opted for five at the back and sentenced Kyle Lafferty to work up front on his own. It screamed defensiveness and the alacrity with which the North’s rearguard retreated to a position on their 18-yard box — where they stayed for most of the 90 minutes — betrayed a side that had been brainwashed by drills in the defensive arts.
That they were overburdened by thoughts of what the opposition could do was emphasised when Michael O’Neill admitted they had concentrated too much on the totemic Robert Lewandowski and that it had allowed Arkadiusz Milik to prosper.
It was Milik who scored the only goal and Milik who escaped the clutches of the North’s defence time and again to engineer chances and there was the danger that an over-zealous focus on Zlatan could open the door for others.
That didn’t happen. Ibrahimovic never acted as a black hole for Irish defenders and, when Martin Olsson raided at will in the second-half, it was due to factors elsewhere and that situation was belatedly rectified.
The Republic were, by and large, as sound and structured as ever at the back, but they didn’t sacrifice attack for it and Ibrahimovic had to contend with the attentions of more than Glenn Whelan and Ciaran Clark who tag-teamed as the Swede floated between the lines.
It was actually Hoolahan who did enough to scupper the one half-chance that came the PSG man’s way in the first-half, the Norwich City playmaker conceding almost a foot in height, but nothing in heart or effort, as he forced his marker to loop the ball high and wide.
Ibrahimovic showcased some jaw-dropping skills in the first hour, but they were fripperies, performed far from the Irish goal, though he was a danger when hovering closer to the Irish area.
Throw a green jersey on him yesterday and Ibra could have been mistaken for Niall Quinn, such was the frequency with which the ball was aimed at his head.
However, having been purposeful and proactive all evening, Ireland lapsed into an oh-so-familiar tentativeness after the opener that invited the Swedes forward and offered Ibrahimovic the one moment he needed to justify his billing.
It may have been an own goal and it may have been nothing more than a routine cross across the Irish six-yard box, but the way he glided past John O’Shea was mesmeric.
For 60 minutes, Ireland had proven what the North forgot, in that attack is every bit as important as defence when negating the game’s superstars.
It is an approach that needs to be repeated in Bordeaux when the collective must trump a Belgium team that lacks Sweden’s supernova, but looks to a cluster of bright but disparate lights.
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