Thursday 18 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: We can stifle Zlatan and build momentum for Bordeaux

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a threat to the Republic of Ireland
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a threat to the Republic of Ireland
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

By the time the Irish players get down to breakfast this morning, they’ll have already felt a different atmosphere around the camp, that extra tension you only feel on the eve of a big game.

It was exactly like that four years ago. The sense of relaxation and the long wait suddenly giving way to something more charged. The players become almost like the supporters — the same anticipation, the same nerves. Nerves are not a bad thing, though, as it shows how excited you are to play.

You allow yourself to think that this could be something special, too, that you could be taking the first step of an historic journey.

Not every player has the same reaction, mind. I was sharing with John O’Shea at Euro 2012 and, while I wanted to get going and was so impatient for it, he was just calm. I asked him who his roommate is this year and he’s by himself. That’s probably a good thing as he’s obviously going to have his own preparation — and doesn’t have me there asking what it’s like to be involved in big games! I didn’t have the same experience he had.

I had so much of that nervous excitement that I remember the afternoon sleep being a nightmare. As I said last week, one of the key things at events like this is to maintain your club routine as much as possible because anything outside that can upset your balance going into a big game. But that’s hard to do because this is a level up. Even if you don’t feel like doing it, you almost just want to tick the box of having a sleep or whatever your usual routine is because it just helps your mindset — but it’s difficult when you just can’t sleep.

This of course is even though I knew I wouldn’t be starting. That’s when it all becomes real, when the manager announces the starting XI. It’s when you start to register it all, and focus again. Even if you’re not playing, you start to think about how you can affect things from the bench.

The one difference between now and the last time is Giovanni Trapattoni obviously announced the team much earlier than Martin O’Neill is likely to do. It meant I wasn’t completely gutted when I was told I wouldn’t be starting against Croatia because, being true to myself, I knew I wasn’t in the best form. I would have been much more affected if I had been playing well, that’s for sure. Also, Trapattoni was basically just confirming what he’d already hinted in the press. O’Neill won’t be like that. From what I have heard, he keeps his cards very close to his chest when dealing with the squad, although he’d still have picked a few brains and dropped some hints.

I’ve had all those hints before.

“Be ready.”

“You’re in my thoughts.”

“I’m just going with my gut feeling.”

And while all these things are being said to you, you’re just thinking: ‘Gaffer, just tell me whether I’m in or not please for God’s sake!’

When he’s going with his ‘gut feeling’, though, how can you have a discussion about that? You can’t win on that one. The manager will have obviously told the individual squad members to keep those little hints to themselves, but players talk. You might not have concrete knowledge of the team, but you still have an idea, and one that is often given further shape by the bibs handed out in training games.

Those matches are amazing because, nearly all the time, the team that seems to be filled with non-starters ends up winning. By then, it’s all in the mind. The ones not playing go, ‘I’ll show you’, and the ones who know they’re starting get a bit nervous or just take it easy because their attention is on the real game.

O’Neill might vary those teams slightly, though, to be able to conjure a few surprises. That would fit with his tactics going right through this campaign from the start of qualifying.

It might yet be the same against Sweden but, in general, I’ve found that managers can sometimes find it very hard to get the last game out of their head and that influences a lot.

I think we should go for a 4-4-2 diamond against Sweden. It allows one player — namely, Wes Hoolahan — to operate at the top of the midfield and go either way without too many defensive duties, bringing that bit more mobility and variation. From there, one of the strikers can go wide. England got a bit of criticism for playing wide strikers last week but we have done it well. Jon Walters usually takes one for the team by dropping out to the right but Shane Long tends to stay central if he can. That set-up works, as it offers the right balance between overall team shape and one clear focal point.

We won’t get away with doing that against Belgium but we can against Sweden, and it could be the difference between winning the game and not. To be fair to O’Neill, the most important aspect of the Sweden game is that we don’t lose. I think we can score against Belgium, so a draw tomorrow is good enough for me. We’d have even more chance of scoring against Belgium if they’re beaten by Italy and are forced to come out and attack, so that’s why I think we should want Antonio Conte’s team to win that game. That way, on Saturday the Belgians could leave space behind for our one man really ready to rock: Shane Long.

As regards Sweden’s main man, he’s obviously exceptionally talented and naturally demands attention because of his personality, but should we really be so worried about Zlatan Ibrahimovic (left)?

I’m just not sure he’s as good as the hype makes out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he isn’t an excellent player. His intelligence stands out, but I don’t think he’s quick enough to run away from us and devastate us in that way. It’s more about craft, and I think O’Shea can deal with that.

I remember playing Bulgaria in 2009 and Dimitar Berbatov was similar to Zlatan, both in size and the way the team was built around him. One moment in the game, he wanders towards me, clearly trying to pick on me and win headers as he’s six-foot-four and I’m five-eight. I told him to “f**k off back up front”, or I’d get stuck in. That’s what experienced and clever players like Zlatan will do, though. He’ll pick on the less experienced players, or what he perceives to be the weak link, so you might see him drift to Richard Keogh rather than O’Shea.

In saying that, I’d trust O’Shea to have the leadership to handle that. He’s played in bigger games, and played with and against bigger players, like Cristiano Ronaldo. O’Shea won’t be fazed by that, and never is. Ibrahimovic won’t frighten him.

The one area we won’t be able to control him is dead-ball situations, so it’ll be important no free-kicks are given away close to our goal.

We have another advantage though: the support. I know it sounds like an easy thing to say, but it’s also said because it’s true. When there are so many fans there, and it’s so loud, the players do feel it. It certainly helps when we’re feeling the tension.

And we’re all feeling it now.

We can score against Belgium so a draw is good enough for me

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