Monday 24 October 2016

Martin O'Neill drawing up plan to halt Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Euro 2016 opener

Published 29/05/2016 | 11:46

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill is already preparing for the opening Euro 2016 fixture against Sweden
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill is already preparing for the opening Euro 2016 fixture against Sweden

Martin O'Neill is already drawing up his plan to try to prevent Zlatan Ibrahimovic from spoiling the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2016 finals campaign before it has begun in earnest.

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The Republic still have one warm-up match to play, Tuesday night's friendly against Belarus in Cork, before they head for France and their opening Group E fixture against Sweden at the Stade de France on June 13.

Four years ago in Poland, Ireland's campaign looked doomed from the off when they were beaten 3-1 by Croatia in their first game, and O'Neill knows his team will have to find a way to stop much-travelled frontman Ibrahimovic if they are to prosper this time around.

He said: "He's a very good player. Great players find ways of extricating themselves from situations if they are being tightly-marked, and Ibrahimovic comes into that category.

"He has been a very fine player for a long time, he has faced those sort of situations before in his time. We need to be very careful - and I'm hoping that Sweden will be careful with one or two of our players.

"We will have to play very, very strongly in the match. It's a big game for us. Ibrahimovic is a terrific footballer and there's no question about it, a talisman of Sweden.

"But they have got some other very fine players playing as well, so it's a tough game for us, we know that. But we want to make it as tough as possible for them."

Ireland made it to France courtesy of a play-off victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina after finishing third in their qualifying group behind world champions Germany and Poland, while Sweden emerged in similar circumstances, defeating Denmark over two legs after ending their Group G campaign behind Austria and Russia.

With Belgium and Italy awaiting the pair after their opening skirmish, both O'Neill and Sweden counterpart Erik Hamren knows defeat in the first game could prove fatal to their hopes of making it past the first stage of the tournament.

The former Northern Ireland international said: "I was speaking to him (Hamren) not so long ago and I think that if we were realistic about this, he would probably be targeting the game against us as one that he thinks he can win, and we are going in with exactly the same approach.

"We feel as if it's a very important game, not only because it's the first match, but because maybe we are the lower-ranked teams and it would be nice to get off to a decent start."

The opening round of fixtures at major tournaments is often cagey and the margin between success and failure can be fine.

Set-pieces at both ends of the field can prove decisive, and O'Neill has been encouraged at his side's ability both defensively and offensively in those situations in recent games.

However, he knows they cannot rely on free-kicks and corners alone to try to win games.

He said: "Set-pieces have become very important over the last decade and maybe even longer than that, but I'm hoping it doesn't boil down to just a set-piece game.

"You would want to think that somebody with a little bit of talent might go past a couple of players and stick the ball in the net. Sweden have got a very good player who can do that and one I think the Swedish team will probably look to.

"We have got a number of very fine players in our team who on the day, will have to be really ready for the match, otherwise we might struggle.

"But overall, naturally we are looking forward to it, just in the same way Sweden are probably looking forward to playing us."

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