Zlatan: Is that really all there is?
ITALY, JUNE 22
Published 05/06/2016 | 17:00
When you look through the Belgium squad, it's hard not to be awestruck - even very anxious - at the sheer amount of quality available to them. The wonder, then, is what manager Marc Wilmots sees when he looks at them. Whatever it is, he seems to ensure that players of such brilliance play well beneath themselves.
It is a growing issue around the team and, for all the talk around Europe that Belgium could be potential winners of this tournament, many in the country feel there is a danger of wasting a golden generation. They certainly aren't playing as entertainingly as they should be. Despite expressive players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, they often look rigid, stuck on tram lines. There are two Wilmots' statements that sum up why that is, and also sum up why he is possibly the wrong man in charge of such a gifted squad.
One: "Everybody wants to play beautiful football but that can't be at the expense of discipline and efficiency, because that's how you get results."
Two, on Marouane Fellaini: "He is a very good player with a unique profile."
So, of all the distinctive talent at his disposal, Fellaini is the player Wilmots describes as unique: a battering ram. He is also the player Wilmots often turns to. Fellaini doesn't always start games but, if Belgium are not winning, he will be brought on to play off a striker. That explains why, of all the attacking talent, the Manchester United midfielder is the top scoring player in the squad and why he got the key first goal in the World Cup.
Many around the Belgian team believe that the experience of Brazil 2014 will spark an evolution for Euro 2016, and there is also the fact that Wilmots is popular among the players for the atmosphere and spirit he creates.
A minority, however, are beginning to wonder whether the football could be more expansive. That could turn into a majority if Belgium don't turn it on. As it stands, though, their stars should not blind people to the fact they have yet to dazzle as a team. They could be fantastic, but are so far only functional.
At the end of 2015, in an interview with Tuttosport, Antonio Conte came out with the type of comment usually credited with deriving the extreme commitment that so defines his teams. "There is no young and old," the manager said, "only victory or failure."
This time, though, it might not just have been one of his motivational mantras. It might have been a necessary mental deflection from the truth: that there is just no young - or, at least, very little - in his squad. Only seven of Conte's 23 players are aged 25 or under, reflecting an ongoing crisis in Italy's talent production. It says much that 38-year-old Gigi Buffon is the best player in the squad, especially with key midfielder Marco Verratti injured. In our sixth major finals, Ireland will be facing the Italians for the fourth time, but it's fair to say we've never encountered an Azzurri side as weak as this.
It has led to many in Italy to talk about the fact that they are a tournament team, that they surprise when written off - as a means of reassurance, but it has also raised bigger questions: is Conte as good as he's made out to be? So respected for restoring Juventus to glory in such a unique way, he is now encountering a growing feeling that this will be the true test of him as a coach, just before he goes to the bigger test of Chelsea.
Conte is leaving the Italian job so soon - and to some resentment - because he misses the day-to-day of club football, but there is an argument that much of his management is actually ideally suited to the international game, regardless of quality available. He is capable of creating the spirit and intensity so rare with the short time available to coaches at this level, and will also have the benefit of his old Juve defence. A backline as solid as that is something else rare in international football. It should make Italy as hard to beat as ever. Winning games with a relatively weak attack, though, is another issue.
- MIGUEL DELANEY
If it so often seems that a ridiculous amount of coverage is given to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the expense of everything else, that is not just because of the striker's individual willingness to bolster his reputation and demand attention. It's because he really is all there is to this side. This is Roy Keane and Ireland in 2002 multiplied by ten.
Consider the complexion of the rest of the squad. The highest levels any of the other players are at are: Sunderland, Norwich City, Benfica, Torino, Celta Vigo, Olympiakos and some of them are unlikely to play, dropped for Kim Kallstrom of Grasshoppers and Andreas Granqvist of Krasnadar. Even if Ibrahimovic would demand much better sides play around him, it makes complete sense with Sweden. With 19 goals and six assists since their last qualification in Euro 2012, he has been involved in 74 per cent of their goals. The solution becomes rather simple in theory, then, if not in practice: cut off the supply to Ibrahimovic.
So, what is there to watch. Kim Kallstrom - he of the injury on signing for Arsenal in 2014, and now at Grasshoppers - will look to release raking passes from midfield and pick out the physicality of either Markus Berg or John Guidetti up front. Robbie Brady will also have to watch the trickery of Olympiakos' Jimmy Durmaz on the wing. Shane Long, meanwhile, could find himself in a few aerial battles with Granqvist. Sweden have specifically targeted victory over Ireland to get through, and that this is their big match. If O'Neill's side cut off their big player, there is plenty of the rest of the team to aim at. Ireland have a superior squad, if no single player close to Ibrahimovic.