Many looking on through green-tinted glasses in Stockholm would have settled for that before the start so it’s a measure of how unexpectedly invigorating this Irish performance was that, by the end, visiting supporters and players alike were entitled to feel regretful at the thought that it could, perhaps should, have been even better.
Because the kids were all right last night. In fact, they were more than all right, Trapattoni’s tyros coming of age in the Friends Arena in this absorbing scoreless draw. Swedish coach Erik Hamren had warned his charges beforehand that Ireland would be different to anything else they would encounter in the group. What he could hardly have envisaged, however, was how different the visitors would be to how Ireland themselves have previously played in the group.
And, while the result means the Irish have only secured one extra point, it still has the double effect of breathing new life into their qualifying campaign and replacing fears for the team’s short-term future with something approaching hope.
Of course, it’s absolutely vital now that the momentum generated in Stockholm is carried through and amplified at home to Austria on Tuesday. Otherwise, all last night’s excellent work will be almost immediately undone.
This positive, upbeat performance was all the more welcome since the omens going into the game had been anything but encouraging. An already much-changed Irish side was hit by a further injury setback on the eve of the game when Glenn Whelan’s ankle problem flared up again. Officially ruled out before kick-off, his absence meant Trapattoni was robbed of his go-to guy. It also meant that the Italian was obliged to reaffirm his faith in James McCarthy, the player who only a day earlier he had left out of the team saying that he was neither a creative force nor the kind of engine room aggressor that would be required.
The domino effect of Whelan’s absence seemed also to make the manager’s mind up about Robbie Brady. Having questioned whether the young Hull man was psychologically ready for such a high-stakes game, he extended his reshuffle by opting to replace him with the experience of Jon Walters.
Having to contend without at least three first choice men — in Richard Dunne, Aiden McGeady and Glenn Whelan — and two potential starters in Sean St Ledger and Anthony Pilkington, meant that the team was already some way from Trapattoni’s preferred starting 11, a situation hardly improved, you had to suspect, by all the late chopping and changing in advance of kick-off.
The eternal optimists hoped that, almost by accident, the manager might have stumbled on an effective unit, but the inexperienced and even patched-up appearance of the side which took the pitch was certainly, at least on paper, in marked contrast to the organised and settled look of Erik Hamren’s Swedish side. It all only served to increase the concern that, even if shielded from the wintry air outside, Ireland would soon find themselves skating on thin ice inside Sweden’s national stadium.
But, in the opening stages, it was, unmistakably, Ireland who were playing by far the more composed football, setting the tone for an encouraging first half which lacked only a clinical finish.
The earliest sign of a potential breakthrough came from a clearly up-for-it James McClean, who showed power and poise to get to the end line before pulling the ball back across goal. In the move’s development there were also stylish, confident touches from Marc Wilson and Robbie Keane but, ultimately, it all came to nought as Jon Walters’ header failed to trouble Andreas Isaksson in the Swedish goal.
There were also two early corners, the second from McClean unfortunately producing a fresh air from Keane. But probably the best opening of the half came in the ninth minute when, after a terrific weaving run, Shane Long could only blast over. Then, when McCarthy misjudged the weight of his return pass after moreincisive work by McClean, there was a growing sense of unease that the Irish might be made to pay.
Still, Seamus Coleman was really beginning to show his stuff on the right flank while Wilson was bringing considerable composure to the Irish play, from back to front. But when, after a great ball from O’Shea, Keane again failed to get a shot away, another promising Irish opportunity came and went.
Sweden only awoke from their comparative slumber late in the half, David Forde being called on to make two fine saves but, on his competitive debut, the goalkeeper could only have been mightily relieved when he subsequently failed to make contact with the ball from a corner and the hitherto almost anonymous Ibrahimovic headed wide.
The hope now was that, in the second period, Ireland could build on a fine first-half performance and maybe even find the goal touch which was pretty much all they had lacked in an opening 45 in which Keane and Long had worked their socks off but failed to match perspiration with inspiration..
As the game got stretched and limbs began to ache, there was more of an open feel to the contest, with neither side able to establish a dominant pattern, and half-chances popping up at either end. Yet it was the visitors who still looked the likelier lads as, going against precedent, they declined to drop deep and defend in numbers.
Instead, with 15 minutes left, there was a bold substitution: Wes Hoolahan brought on to replace the exhausted Keane. Suddenly, an Irish team under Trapattoni had an almost fantasy football look about it. And yet with the scoreline so finely balanced, you sensed that, now, the little detail could decide it either way — one moment of brilliance or one lapse in concentration.
Hoolahan and then McCarthy almost provided the former and, right at the death Forde again reacted sharply to deny Rasmus Elm what would have been an undeserved winner but, after Trapattoni had emptied his bench, it was the Irish who were doing all the celebrating at the final whistle, The Fields Of Athenry, no longer the lament of Poznan but this time threatening to raise the roof in Stockholm.
Sweden subs: Mikael Antonsson for Mikael Lustig (46), Ola Toivonen for Tobias Hysen (73), Jimmy Durmaz for Seb Larsson (87).
Ireland subs: Wes Hoolahan for Robbie Keane (76), Andy Keogh for James McClean (83), Shane Long for Conor Sammon (87).
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