Draw against Sweden the one that got away

What is it about Ireland, the Stade de France and cruel twists of fate?

For the Hand of Gaul in 2009, read the Head of Clark in 2016.

Ciaran Clark’s 90 minutes pretty much personified the team’s a hugely positive and generally uplifting display undone by a spasm of self-destruction, the centre-half’s luckless own goal permitting Sweden to achieve a parity on the scoreboard which they scarcely ever enjoyed on the pitch.

The headlines should have been all about the night Ibra had to bow down to Wessi, as the little wizard Hoolahan crowned a man-of-the-match performance with one of the great Irish goals.

But, even after a mostly anonymous performance, Zlatan would not be denied his say: It was his drifting run past John O’Shea which caused panic in the Irish rearguard and, when he pulled the ball across the face of goal, Clark couldn’t help but direct it firmly past Darren Randolph.

Indeed, one other Ibrahimovic effort apart, it was Clark — so commanding for so much of the game — who had also given the Swedes their only meaningful effort on target up to the goal, when Randolph had to show superb reflexes to keep the defender’s deflection at bay.

But those were cameos, all the real, sustained action was taking place at the other end of the pitch, especially in a tremendous first 45 minutes when Ireland played with flair as well as fire, and would not have been flattered to go in two, if not three, goals ahead at the break.

But, in the deflating final analysis, it all added up to this: An Irish draw that felt like a defeat because it could and should have been a victory. Added disappointment came later, when we learned that Jon Walters is in danger of missing the rest of the tournament with a flare-up of his Achilles problem.

All that said, it would be wrong to underplay the many positives, both on and off the pitch, at the Stade de France yesterday.

After the ugly scenes which had disfigured the infant tournament in Marseilles, the national stadium presented a much more inviting backdrop for the international game, the massed ranks of the Irish spread across the stands like a field of green while the Swedish supporters bloomed like a host of golden daffodils.

After our attempts to second-guess Martin O’Neill’s team selection, the manager eschewed surprises and opted for the tried and tested, even though Richard Keogh would have been entitled to consider himself unlucky to lose out to Clark as John O’Shea’s partner in the heart of the defence.

And though his club season had been troubled by injury and he’d looked pretty rusty in the final warm-up game against Belarus in Cork, Jeff Hendrick held off the claims of Stephen Quinn and James McClean to retain his place.

The best news in the Irish starting line-up was the confirmation that Walters was deemed fit enough to start, with Hoolahan’s presence another cause for widespread cheer.

Wes Hoolahan, centre, celebrates after he scored his side’s first goal at the Stade de France. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Wes Hoolahan, centre, celebrates after he scored his side’s first goal at the Stade de France. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Unfortunately, Irish supporters only had to hear the huge roar from their Swedish counterparts when Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s face appeared on the stadium’s big screen to know that their prayers had not been answered and the Big Fella had not succumbed to a timely dose of the flu, or similar, which might have kept him out of the action.

From players to supporters to match officials, all the principal characters were present and correct: the Stade, you could say, was set.

And so, it turned out, were Ireland.

In the first half, they were utterly dominant but agonisingly incapable of converting their head and shoulders superiority into the hard currency of goals.

John O’Shea had the best chance but, unlike in Germany when he aced a more difficult finish, this time the Waterford man couldn’t find the crucial touch with the goal gaping.

One of the stars of the show, Jeff Hendrick, then thumped one against the crossbar while another, Robbie Brady, blazed an effort just over before, as the break approached, Shane Long came close to getting on the edge of a typically inviting Brady ball across the face of the six-yard box.

Rocked back on their heels, Sweden were now on the rack, there for the taking and, three minutes after the restart, the Irish finally accepted the invitation their fine football and concerted pressure had created, as Seamus Coleman turned his marker inside out, clipped a ball to the far side of the box, and there was Hoolahan to meet it with the sweetest of half-volleys, leaving Andreas Isaksson helpless in the Swedish goal.

Unfortunately, it was at this high point that the Irish began to succumb to an old failing — surrendering the initiative from a position of strength. It was in this period when Ireland didn’t seem to know quite whether to stick or twist, that Sweden belatedly came into the game, Randolph showing superb reflexes to spare Clark’s blushes — for the time being — before Ibrahimovic, who’d been generally well shadowed by Glenn Whelan when the Swede dropped deep, popped up in the box to flash one just wide of the Irish keeper’s post.

But it was after the enforced withdrawal of Walters in the 64th minute that Swedish full-back Martin Olsson really began enjoying the freedom of the left flank, and it took only another eight minutes for the increased pressure to tell, as Ibrahimovic’s assist was finished by Clark as the defender desperately tried to keep Seb Larsson at bay at the near post.

Ireland’s Ciaran Clark scores an own goal. Photo: INPHO/James Crombie
Ireland’s Ciaran Clark scores an own goal. Photo: INPHO/James Crombie

Martin O’Neill’s replacement of Wes Hoolahan might have drained Ireland of some creativity, but the manager certainly could not be accused of settling for the draw as Robbie Keane, James McClean and Aiden McGeady made for an attacking triumvirate of substitutions.

But even though the Irish were once again taking the game to the opposition as the final minutes ticked down, they couldn’t conjure up the final flourish that would have prevented this Group E opener going down as the one that got away.

REP OF IRELAND:

Randolph, Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Brady, McCarthy (McGeady 85), Whelan, Hendrick, Hoolahan (Keane 78), Walters (McClean 63), Long

Subs not used:

Westwood, Keogh, Duffy, Christie, Ward, Meyler, Murphy, Quinn, Given

SWEDEN:

Isaksson, Lustig (Johansson 44), Lindelof, Granqvist, Olsson, Larsson, Lewicki (Ekdal 86), Kallstrom, Forsberg, Berg (Guidetti 59), Ibrahimovic

Subs not used:

Olsen, Jansson, Hiljemark, Wernbloom, Augustinsson, Kujovic, Durmaz, Zengin, Carlgren.

Referee:

Milorad Mazic (Serbia).

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