REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 1 SWEDEN 1
Ciaran Clark’s own goal snatched a first competitive victory over Sweden from the Republic of Ireland’s grasp on another night of heartache at the Stade de France.
Ireland looked to be on their way to a first win at the European Championship finals since they beat England in Stuttgart in 1988, courtesy of Wes Hoolahan’s fine 48th-minute strike.
But their hopes were dashed in Saint Denis when Aston Villa defender Clark turned Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cross past goalkeeper Darren Randolph to leave the Republic having to make do with a point from a 1-1 draw on a night when they could justifiably feel they should have emerged with more.
Sweden were decidedly second best before the break and although they improved after it, Ireland boss Martin O’Neill will feel his side did more than enough to have won a game in which victory would have given either team a significant chance of making it out of Group E.
Ireland’s last game at the Stade de France ended in tears as they saw their chance of a trip to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa stolen from them by the hand of Thierry Henry and they were in no mood to leave heartbroken once again.
That night they played with a freedom rarely seen under the conservative Giovanni Trapattoni, and they did so once again before the break to leave a Sweden team led by genuine superstar Ibrahimovic hanging on desperately.
But for the woodwork and keeper Andreas Isaksson, Ireland would have headed back to the dressing room with a deserved lead, and the only concern as they left the pitch was that they had nothing to show for their dominance.
In a robust encounter, it was they who threw all the significant punches with midfielder Jeff Hendrick forcing Isaksson to save a rising 10th-minute drive after he had run on to Jonathan Walters’ knock-down.
Captain John O’Shea, whose late equaliser in Germany garnered a precious point towards the qualification fund, came agonisingly close to adding to his modest tally of three senior international goals when he only just failed to connect with central defensive partner Clark’s flick-on at the back post.
That opening came from Robbie Brady’s corner, and the Norwich man fired inches too high after he had cut inside and gone for goal right-footed with 28 minutes played.
However, it was Hendrick who came closest to breaking the deadlock four minutes later from Ireland’s best move of the half, exchanging passes with striker Shane Long before rattling the crossbar from distance with Isaksson helpless.
For their part, Sweden offered little as an attacking force with Ibrahimovic stabbing a half-chance high and wide six minutes from half-time from what proved to be a rare glimpse of Randolph’s goal.
The game exploded into life within three minutes of the restart when full-back Seamus Coleman tricked his way into the penalty area and kept his head to pick out Hoolahan, whose first-time half-volleyed finish was a thing of beauty.
The Irish contingent erupted, although their cheers very nearly died in their throats within two minutes when Clark hacked an attempted clearance towards his own goal to force Randolph into his first real save of the game.
Sweden sensed an escape route and committed men to the search for an equaliser, and it nearly came when Ibrahimovic turned Martin Olsson’s shot just past Randolph’s right-hand post on the hour.
But their redemption eventually arrived courtesy of an Irish head when Clark, in a desperate attempt to cut out Ibrahimovic’s cross after substitute John Guidetti had back-heeled the ball into space, unwittingly turned it past his own keeper to hand the Swedes a lifeline.
The equaliser both deflated Ireland and further invigorated the Swedes, and it was O’Neill’s men who were more relieved when the final whistle signalled an end to proceedings with honours even.