Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes his presence felt

Swedish superstar as good as his word as he sets up equaliser against the Republic of Ireland

As Zlatan Ibrahimovic surveyed the scene before kick off he appeared to give a little nod, as if to approve this arena and occasion worthy of his presence. The man who famously said a World Cup without him wasn’t worth watching was ready. We could begin.

Even if the clouds overhead were slate grey, before kick off they seemed to metaphorically lift. As the deafening PA boomed out ear splitting Europop, the Stade de France crackled with anticipation from two sets of fans who appeared to be on a collective mission to cut through the fug of security worries and dismal dissection of events in Marseille that had weighed down the opening days.

Split 50/50 between vibrant yellow and emerald green, they bounced like bunnies to House of Pain’s Jump Around and created a stage that surely even Ibrahimovic would consider worthy of his planet-sized talent - and ego.

To the left: the usual ginger beards, leprechauns, comedy sunglasses and novelty hats that make the travelling Irish support look increasingly like a riot in a pound shop. To the right: a sea of yellow and blue.


The fear for both sets of fans, used to underachievement at recent tournaments, was that their support would not be matched by the efforts of their side on the pitch.

For Ireland, the ghost of Thierry Henry's handball in 2009 also haunts this stadium. With each chance that came and went during an impressive first half display, Irish fans must have felt that the old cliche had been inverted when it comes to the French national stadium.

And if Irish fans are placing their faith in the team ethic, for the Swedes, all that hope is invested in just one man: Ibrahimovic. As he enters his sixth major tournament for his country at the age of 34 as the definition of a one-man team, he is quite clear that the pressure does not faze him.

“I have been dominating wherever I go. I have no issue about that,” he said with a twinkle on the eve of the match when it was put to him he had never taken charge on the biggest international stage.

But that certainly wasn't the case during a first half when Sweden dominated possession for long spells but Ireland had all the cutting edge and all the chances, coming closest when Jeff Hendrick's beautifully struck effort hit the bar with Andreas Isaksson beaten.

Sweden’s talisman wandered the pitch searching for the ball and trying to introduce some vim into Sweden’s performance. Always available but often dropping too deep, his side would stroke the ball around prettily but were unable to find any cutting edge against a solid Irish defence.

Yet even an ineffective Zlatan is still Zlatan. Rather like Gareth Bale for Wales, it is impossible to take your eyes from him, even in an atmosphere as riotous as this - he seems somehow bigger, more hyper real than his teammates.

Perhaps it is the man bun. More likely it’s the sense that they remain the most talented kid in the playground - that rare feeling that something is about to happen every time they get the ball.

But the Swedish talisman’s frustration was summed up by a moment deep into the first half when a trademark pirouette drew “ooohs” from the crowd. It was pretty, yet ineffective - in the centre circle rather than his opponent’s penalty area.

Likewise, he revved up for a free-kick from 30 yards out as though convinced it was going to arrow into the net only to slam it into the bottom of the wall.

At 34, Ibrahimovic insists he is still getting better.

Eyeing a final payday in England and about to sign for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, the stats back him up - 50 goals in 52 games last season. But he was a spectator for long periods, grimacing and fidgeting with his captain's armband as his team-mates failed to play their supporting roles and the match flitted around rather than through him.

As Sweden chased an equaliser he was caught offside three times in quick succession through a combination of carelessness and desperation as his team-mates sought his magic touch ever more eagerly. More grimaces.

Shortly after man of the match Wes Hoolahan fired Ireland into the lead, a low cross flashed across the box, evading Ibrahimovic but falling perfectly for left-back Martin Olsson. As he slashed wildly at the ball and sent it sailing wide, Ibrahimovic had his head in his hands.

And yet he didn’t hide. He never does. It felt inevitable he would still have a big influence on the outcome of this match and so it proved.

As Ibrahimovic bustled down to the byline, set free by a smart backheel from substitute John Guidetti, it was the towering Swede who sowed the seeds of panic that prompted the unfortunate Ciaran Clark to turn the ball into his own net.

Ibrahimovic might have got an undeserved winner too had Clark not later outmuscled as he stretched for an Olsson cross. Turns out you can’t necessarily win them all on your own. Not all the time, anyway. Guardian Service