Thursday 29 September 2016

Ten years on, Martin O'Neill no longer thinks Zlatan Ibrahimovic is over-rated

Published 12/06/2016 | 18:46

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, pictured, has revised his opinion of Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, pictured, has revised his opinion of Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Martin O'Neill has admitted Zlatan Ibrahimovic is no longer "over-rated" as he prepares to send the Republic of Ireland into battle with Sweden's superstar striker.

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A decade ago O'Neill, in his role as a television pundit, described Ibrahimovic as "the most over-rated player on the planet", a comment which was put to him at his press conference ahead of Ireland's Group E opener against Sweden at the Stade de France on Monday evening.

The 64-year-old said: "Well 10 years ago, that might have been the case. Lots of things can happen in that time. I remember myself feeling for a period of time that Henrik Larsson was over-rated. After about three and a half minutes, I changed my mind.

"He's a top-class player. He's one of the best in Europe, if not the world. He's Sweden's talisman and he will be hard to keep quiet during the course of the game.

"All world-class players, regardless of how well or how closely they are marked, are able to elude things during the course of the game, and he is one of those players."

Ibrahimovic scored 11 times during Sweden's qualification campaign and represents a major threat to Ireland's hopes of getting off to a winning start in Saint Denis, and his ability and track record have certainly impressed skipper Robbie Keane, whose 67 international goals tell their own story.

Asked if he liked the 34-year-old, Keane said: "Yes, of course - how could you not? He's a top, top player, as the gaffer referred to. He's been doing it for a long, long time and he seems to be getting better and better.

"He scores goals no matter where he's been, he's won league titles, so he's a top, top player. He's certainly someone I respect and admire from a distance.

"I have played against him on numerous occasions and he's certainly a player that we have to watch. But they certainly have players in that team also that can cause teams damage, so we have to be wary of that."

Keane is a veteran of the Republic's disappointing Euro 2012 campaign, which saw them return home without a single point after defeats by Croatia, Spain and Italy.

However, while there is optimism that they can make a bigger impact this time around, the 35-year-old striker insists 2012 has to be put into context.

He said: "We had a great spirit four years ago. We played against three of the best teams at that time, possibly you would say, and we didn't win a game.

"But as a group of players, we went in thinking we'd got a good chance of getting out of the group. The team spirit has always been high, but as I said, we played against top, top teams, so that's just the way it goes sometimes in football.

"Are we ready now? Of course we are, there's no question about it. The lads are excited, everybody is just looking forward now to the games coming around."

O'Neill is hopefully that Jonathan Walters, his only remaining injury doubt, will shake off an Achilles problem having suffered no ill-effects following his return to training as Ireland look for a first competitive victory over the Swedes at the seventh attempt.

However, he does not believe the game is a must-win affair despite Belgium and Italy awaiting his side.

He said: "No, I don't think it's a must-win. It's very, very important, of course, it would be great to get of to a great start, and I'm sure that Sweden are targeting us in the sense that they feel that if they could win this game against us, it gives them a great chance.

"We must feel exactly the same way."

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