Ireland can build on draw after Sweden disappoint
PARIS: Ireland can take encouragement from a 1-1 draw in their Euro 2016 Group E opener on Monday but the result was a cause of great concern for Sweden whose mediocrity contrasted starkly with their opponents' desire.
Ireland were the better team and Sweden were fortunate to grab an equaliser when Irish defender Ciaran Clark headed a cross into his own goal after Wes Hoolahan had opened the scoring with a splendid strike early in the second half.
It was another misfortune for Ireland at the Stade de France, where they were playing for the first time since Thierry Henry's infamous handball for France led to a goal that crushed the 2010 World Cup qualifying dreams of the Irish in a playoff.
Monday's match was probably the one the Irish and Swedes had targeted for a win in a section that also features traditional European force Italy and a talented Belgium side.
Martin O'Neill's Boys in Green, however, can be more optimistic than Erik Hamren's Blue-Yellows, who did not manage a single shot on target despite the efforts of talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was kept fairly quiet by Ireland's defence.
"We have two very, very tough matches coming against two sides that are very classy," said O'Neill.
"But if I can take anything from the performance today, it was that the players looked accomplished. We have the desire but the players are growing into international football."
Both teams were backed by hordes of fans and the yellow and green armies brought a festive touch to the Stade de France, in sharp contrast with the violence that has marred the tournament.
O'Neill's side showed a real desire to win, making two attacking substitutions after Sweden's equaliser, while the Scandinavians looked slow and toothless until Ireland took a deserved lead three minutes after the break.
Hoolahan struck a superb half-volley into the net from Seamus Coleman's perfect cross into the area triggering a roar rarely heard in the usually subdued Stade de France.
That acted as a wake-up call for Sweden, who were relying on their enigmatic 34-year-old captain Ibrahimovic.
"I came like a king, left like a legend," Ibrahimovic quipped as he left Paris St Germain at the end of last season after helping them win a second straight domestic treble.
He was certainly neither when he returned to Paris on Monday.
In the first half, Ibrahimovic looked lost on a pitch where which he won two French Cup and two League Cup trophies and, while he produced the cross that led to Ireland's own goal, the striker failed to convert a chance in the closing stages.
In the 71st minute, Ibrahimovic made a rare break down the left flank into the area and his cross was headed into his own goal by the unfortunate Clark.
Twelve minutes later, however, Ibrahimovic just failed to connect as Martin Olsson's cross whizzed in front of him, missing the chance to score an almost certain winner albeit undeserved.
"The feeling right now is disappointment rather than coming back for a draw," said Hamren.
"For the first 50 minutes Ireland were better. Credit to Ireland. Our attack was really bad in the first half. They were able to close us down.
“We didn’t lose but I’m disappointed because we didn’t play the way we should have done."
Ibrahimovic added: "I tried but I can do much better,"