Euro 2012: Hodgson wary of Ibrahimovic threat
England tonight face one of the footballing conundrums of the modern age -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a serial scorer of amazing goals throughout his career, including one at Ajax when he dribbled past five Breda opponents (two of them twice).
Yet Sweden's captain is also the man who has breached English defences only four times in 1,446 minutes.
Acclaimed across large swathes of the continent, he is viewed with considerable scepticism through English eyes.
Ibrahimovic has managed only three goals in 1,312 minutes against Premier League sides, namely a double for Barcelona at Arsenal in 2010 and another against Arsene Wenger's defence in the 4-0 thrashing at San Siro four months ago. Against England, Ibrahimovic scored the winner in an 89-minute shift in Gothenburg in 2004, although he departed after 45 goalless minutes at Wembley last year. All very average.
So why does he struggle? People talk of the rugged nature of English defending not being to Ibrahimovic's liking. In mitigation, Ibrahimovic has often been played up front as a lone striker when his Italian teams visited England, with Juventus at Liverpool and Arsenal, with Inter Milan at Liverpool and Manchester United. He failed to score at White Hart Lane and the Emirates with AC Milan.
The quicker tempo of the English game is clearly an issue, one reason why Premier League clubs have paused for thought when scouting him, as well as wages of €12m a year -- after tax.
Not blessed with great pace, Ibrahimovic has to prove he can survive without those little pockets of space where he turns, schemes and builds his runs towards goals. John Terry or Joleon Lescott will go tight while Scott Parker, particularly, or Steven Gerrard will drop off, again squeezing the area where the Swedish captain begins much of his most dangerous work.
Standing off the man they call Ibracadabra spells only trouble. England must beware his trademark cut in from the left, working the ball on to his right.
"I don't think he polarises opinion -- certainly not in Sweden because he is an iconic figure and they are very much in awe of him,'' said England manager Roy Hodgson.
"His career record is quite incredible. Maybe on one or two of the times he has come to England he had not succeeded when he has been built up to succeed. But that may be down to the fact that on the day he met a good team that made it hard for him to play.
"I have seen quite a lot of him over the years -- first of all in 2000 the year after they (Malmo) had been relegated for the only time in their history -- he made sure they got straight back up again. I thought then he was going to be something special and everything he has done since then has proved how special he is."
Hodgson showed his players videos of Ibrahimovic last night. Any viewing is impressive, excluding footage against the English. He has this way of rolling his foot over the ball, nudging it one way before pushing it the other, so unbalancing his marker. In that 2004 goal against Breda he slalomed through the middle, feinting this way and that, leaving defenders on the floor before finally putting them out of their misery with a low shot from right to left.
Two months earlier, his dexterity and imagination was seen in an outrageous equaliser against Italy at Euro 2004. Reacting quicker than Gianluigi Buffon, Ibrahimovic met a dropping ball with a back-heel that cleared a despairing Christian Vieri on the line.
He can score deft goals and piledrivers, mixing the balletic with the ballistic.
There was one goal for Inter against Empoli where he zigzagged through the middle. Another against Parma saw him tame the ball on his chest before finishing with an unstoppable volley. Against Sampdoria, he was surrounded by opponents but he just kept changing direction to weave past them and score.
Ibrahimovic has continued to demonstrate his taste for the spectacular at AC Milan. Last year's left-footed strike against Lecce almost defied belief, another chested-down ball thundered over a 'keeper from range. Ibrahimovic needs the oxygen of space and the English will fight him for every gulp of air. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
England (probable) -- Hart, Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole, Milner, Gerrard, Parker, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Young, Welbeck.
Sweden (probable) -- Isaksson; Lustig, Mellberg, Granqvist, Mn Olsson, Elm, Larsson, Kallstrom, Ibrahimovic, Toivonen, Rosenberg.
Sweden v England,
Live, RTE2/BBC1, 7.45