For the Green Army, four years ago was an utter disaster, and the worst ever showing at a Euro competition in their competitive history. Ireland crashed out of their group after losing all three games, whilst conceding nine and scoring just once. Giovanni Trapattoni and Ireland eventually parted ways after failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, with current boss Martin O’Neill arriving in his stead, and now is tasked with guiding Ireland through one of the toughest quartets in this tournament.
Much of the buzz has been about the aging striker Robbie Keane, who not only is the team’s captain but also their most capped player and all-time top marksman with 142 caps and 67 goals. At 35, the LA Galaxy star is definitely featuring in his final international tournament and in true talismanic fashion, scored five out of the team’s 19 goals during group stage qualifying. However, Southampton’s Shane Long, who scored 13 for the Saints and played a huge role in them securing Europa League football, will definitely want to have a say of his own.
Speaking of aging – Ireland’s squad has plenty of more seasoned players within their ranks. For instance, shot-stopper Shay Given could be the first ever 40-year-old to play at a Euro final should he feature on Monday and in total, there are 11 players over the age of 30 in this team. And with a bad record – Ireland have lost their last four games at European Championship finals – the longest losing streak of any side at Euro 2016 – fans will be counting that the “luck of the Irish” will help them starting from Monday against Sweden.
Furthermore, the Stade de France is not a venue Ireland will remember too fondly. Back in 2009, it was the scene of that controversial handball by Thierry Henry in 2009 that denied them a spot in the 2010 World Cup, and they will be hoping to write a more favorable headline this time around.
As for Erik Hamrén’s Sweden, there will be one man all eyes will be on. And Zlatan Ibrahimovic certainly enjoys being in the spotlight. Like Keane, he is his team’s skipper and their all-time top scorer, with 62 goals. During qualifiers he scored a whopping eight out of the team’s 15 overall goals. Their play-off tie against fellow Scandinavian side Denmark might as well have read Zlatan 4, Denmark three.
At nearly 35, Ibrahimovic appears to be a fine wine, that only get better with age, but for all intents and purposes, he is highly unlike to feature at World Cup 2018 – and that’s even if Sweden qualify. This, as such, will be his last chance to win any titles with the Blågult – something that, despite his impressive club performances, will be a tall order in itself. Still, considering that Sweden have failed to clear the group stages in their past two tournaments, if Ibrahimovic can inspire them to the quarter-finals, that would be still a decent achievement, especially given the toughness of their group.
Ireland vs. Sweden. Keane vs. Ibrahimovic. Both are their team’s skippers, top goalscorers and superstars in their own right. Will Ireland be able to snap their frustrating win-less streak? Or will Sweden translate the momentum from their 3-0 win over Wales into clinching all three points?