By Ronan Murphy
At the very end of the match in Stockholm on Friday night, Republic of Ireland goalkeeper David Forde pulled off a great save to see the Boys in Green take a deserved point against Sweden. Forde came to claim the corner and referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco blew the whistle for full-time. The Millwall man booted the ball into the crowd and celebrated as if his side had won. Despite the scoreline, that's exactly what the game was - a victory of sorts for an Irish team which had been written off before the game, and more so, a victory against his critics for manager Giovanni Trapattoni.
During the week building up to the match, many pundits were claiming that the trip to Sweden and the home clash with Austria could be Trapattoni's last games as Ireland manager. Few expected Trapattoni's charges to have any impact against Paris Saint-Germain superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, especially when he earmarked the Leeds United player Paul Green as the man to deal with the threat.
In fact, Trapattoni's decision was the right one, with Ibrahimovic failing to repeat the form he showed against England in November. All over the pitch, Trapattoni's adapted 4-4-2 worked well. Robbie Keane played a deeper role than usual, and hounded the Swedish midfield, who were forced to play it long time and again.
The Italian's selection of Jonathan Walters instead of Robbie Brady offered Seamus Coleman great support when getting forward, and resulted in a dynamism we have not seen in a while from the Boys in Green. Granted, Trapattoni's communication could have been better in dealing with the withdrawal of the Hull City man from the line-up.
James McCarthy looked sharp and eager, despite being omitted from the initial XI, contradicting reports of alleged disharmony in the camp stemming from first-team exclusions.
Ireland's younger players are getting most of the credit for this performance, and it's well-deserved, with Marc Wilson and Ciaran Clark bedding in well in defence, but Trapattoni's contribution is being understated. Only two of Trapattoni's Euro 2012 starting XI took to the pitch in Stockholm last night, while eight of the other nine Stockholm starters were given their Ireland debuts by the Italian.
In addition, the introduction of Wes Hoolahan for Robbie Keane in the second-half shows a more progressive approach from Trapattoni, who is now looking to use the Norwich City midfielder as a creative spark in the middle of the park. Earlier in his tenure, it would have been unthinkable for the Italian to take off Keane in place of a midfielder, but Trapattoni showed that he still can spring a surprise or two.
Before the game, Trapattoni told the press corps: "A win has 100 fathers, defeat is an orphan. A great philosopher said this." This draw can be placed in the former category, seemingly, with everyone other than the coach being singled out for praise in most quarters.
With Portugal failing to beat Israel, Spain drawing at home to Finland, and Albania beating Norway in Olso, Trapattoni's feat of a draw in Stockholm deserves much credit. International football is no longer as predictable as it once was. Teams like Iceland, Lithuania and even Liechtenstein are capable of causing upsets - all three did last night.
Trapattoni has guided his team well in this climate, and to draw in Stockholm is no easy task. Nor was it a lucky point for Ireland, but rather a deserved one against well-respected opposition. In 14 consecutive away qualifiers, Ireland have yet to be beaten under the Italian.
It is all too easy to blame the manager when things go wrong, as often happens, but here Trapattoni deserves as much praise as his players. His tactics stifled Sweden for large parts of the game, and his team had a couple of decent chances to snatch a winner. Ireland will be now full of confidence for Tuesday's tie with Austria, and the man most responsible for that is a wily old Italian, who turned 74 just last week.