IS THIS HOW it ends?
Giovanni Trapattoni was the first to admit that these five days and the games against Sweden and Austria would define Ireland’s World Cup qualification chances. What he didn’t say — what didn’t need to be said — was that they would also define his future as Irish manager and, in all probability, the legacy he ultimately leaves.
With a flash of Anders Svensson’s boot Tuesday’s trip to Vienna ceased to be of any real relevance. Ireland’s campaign is holed below the waterline; Sweden, with a helping hand from Germany in Munich, take control of the race for second place.
Trapattoni wouldn’t quite admit that he now faces an impossible task. “Obviously our task is difficult,” he said while taking what meagre solace remains in the mathematical equations.
“In three games, anything can happen.”
This was not Ireland’s worst performance of the campaign, not by a long shot. For periods of the first half they were the better side, pinning Sweden back in their own half. Even as the first 20 minutes evolved into a mish-mash of hard pressing, loose touches in tight spaces, and little discernible pattern, Ireland had the better of the half-chances. When the opening goal came courtesy of captain Robbie Keane, they had earned it.
It was typical Robbie, number 60 in his international collection. Alert to Mikael Lustig’s weak header, he pounced and refused to relent until the ball had been driven over the line.
Sweden’s defence looked ragged, particularly Lustig. He again struggled to contain James McClean, who vindicated his selection and was Ireland’s best player on the night. The opportunity seemed to be there for Ireland to press on and seize control but, like so many occasions in the past, they were paralysed by the possibilities.
If they thought they could muddle their way through to the finish line, Sweden quickly reminded them that would not be the case. Johan Elmander forced David Forde into a low save and Sebastian Larsson will know that he should have equalised when he put his free header the wrong side of the post.
When the goal came, Ireland had led for just 12 minutes. Lustig finally got one back on McClean, whipping the ball in as Elmander stole a march on Dunne and headed past Forde.
In his pre-match press conference, Trapattoni stressed the need to match the endeavour and performance shown in Stockholm back in March. The key that night was the manner in which Ireland limited Zlatan Ibrahmovic but as the game wore on, it became painfully clear that John O’Shea, Richard Dunne and Glenn Whelan were exerting nothing like the same control.
Playing with a better foil in Elmander, Ibrahimovic thrived on the freedom he was allowed between the lines. He was the focal point of every attacking thrust and, when a player of that calibre is allowed to exert that influence, inevitably he will find his mark.
The defining moment came on 57 minutes when he again drifted away from O’Shea and found space to slip the ball behind the Irish defence. Whelan appeared to have Svensson’s run under control but the Swedish veteran got the ball past him and Forde at his near post.
If this is to be the night Trap’s Ireland dies, perhaps it was appropriate that they went down not in a blaze of glory like Paris 2009 but in a barrage of long balls that reeked of desperation. Sweden’s back four gladly gobbled up the offerings which allowed them to solidify.
Ireland’s best chance of providing a creative spark, James McCarthy, was bypassed completely when his country needed him most and Shane Long, a willing warrior under the high ball, sacrificed any real chance to get involved as the attacks briefly developed and petered out.
That crude approach meant that the gig was up long before the final whistle went. It was up for the fans who headed for the door early, and it was up for the fans who stayed to boo at the final whistle.
And, barring the miracle he clings to, it appears to be up for Trap.