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Sunday 25 September 2016

Ireland won the tactical battle and only improve three points

The Republic of Ireland’s Glenn Whelan argues with Sweden’s Kim Källström during their Euro 2016 Group E match at the Stade de France in Paris. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The Republic of Ireland’s Glenn Whelan argues with Sweden’s Kim Källström during their Euro 2016 Group E match at the Stade de France in Paris. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

You'll never beat the Irish.

That's the quintessential Irish dream. The aisling that inspired generations of saints and scholars.

Despite what the naysayers might say, there's more than a grain of truth in the old football chant.

Last evening we saw the dream burst into life in the Stade de France.

Star Trek's Mr Spock, who found human behaviour "highly illogical", might have difficulty with the wave of enthusiasm and optimism that gathered the force of theological conviction in Ireland over the past few weeks. But the fans' belief in the Boys in Green is forever steadfast.

Communally, we'd convinced ourselves that, despite the threat posed by the Sweden squad, we'd get something out of Ireland's crucial opening match.

In private, having watched the various formations and team-sheets he'd put out, some asked if manager Martin O'Neill was playing sophisticated mind games or if, in fact, he actually knew his best eleven.

Perish the thought.

"The players are ready for it," O'Neill reassured before kick-off.

Deep down, we assessed the two teams that Ireland would face. That'd be Sweden AND Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If you were to believe the 6ft 5in Sweden captain, Zlatan was still a growing lad and might appear as a capricious Nordic god.

He'd knocked in 38 goals for Paris Saint-Germain last season. And scored 11 goals for Sweden in the Euro qualifiers.

Martin O'Neill had even joked that to stop him punishing Ireland he might have to "put something in his tea". There was no need to resort to such drastic action when he had the industrious Glenn Whelan in his squad.

As a lusty Amhrán na bhFiann rang out around the Stade de France, Ireland looked resolute.

The match was just a few minutes old when another problem presented itself. As the Sweden goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson slipped taking a kick-out it became apparent that the pitch was cutting up and could have a negative influence on play.

Martin Olsson looked lively for Sweden down the left wing. But the first real test for a keeper came from a Jeff Hendrick zinger on ten minutes which Isaksson pushed away for a corner.

There's a long-held school of thought that suggests our set pieces might be our salvation in this tournament. Certainly, when John O'Shea missed a glorious goal chance from a corner on 17 minutes, a collective groan was tempered by the realisation that Ireland was capable of creating chances.

On 30 minutes Robbie Brady popped up just outside the area to send in a blistering right-footed shot that whizzed inches over.

Three minutes later, Jeff Hendrik unleashed a rocket that smashed off the Sweden crossbar, inches from rattling the net.

But all the while, the ominous presence of Ibrahimovic cruised with intent in the Ireland half. Like a great white shark who scents blood, he floated in danger areas ready to rip Ireland to shreds.

However, if you can shepherd a shark, the lads were doing well. Even Hoolahan was getting in on the act, helping foil a Zlatan shot at one stage.

Even with things all square on nil-nil at half-time, there was no escaping the sense of dread that Ireland may have missed the the boat when John O'Shea failed to convert a Brady corner.

But the world turned green early in the second half when Séamus Coleman gave the Sweden defence a case of what Alex Ferguson once described as "twisted blood" by jinking his way into the area and sending over a perfectly-weighted cross for Wes Hoolahan to take on the half-volley. It was the sweetest strike since they marched with plackards outside Urney's, Lemon's or Carbury's.

Instead of putting Ireland comfortably in the driving seat, that inspired goal had the effect of stinging the slumbering beast into life. Ireland began to look vulnerable as the yellow shirts swarmed forward in force.

OK, Ireland came slightly unstuck under pressure and conceded a goal. But they hung on, took the fight back to Sweden and, despite their efforts, had to settle for a share of the spoils.

It was a truly positive display and manager Martin O'Neill clearly won the tactical battle.

"We were really fantastic," he said after the match.

"We dominated the game," insisted John O'Shea. "That's the positive we can take from it."

The dream is alive. And this squad look set to create some glorious memories for their fans.

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