Friday 19 January 2018

Golden boy Alaba can wreak havoc on Swedes

John Fallon in Vienna

WHILE Ireland look to secure a handy three points against the Faroe Islands, the main event of the night in World Cup qualifying Group C is set to be an altogether more frenetic affair.

Austria, fresh from pinching a late point off Giovanni Trapattoni's side in March, entertain Sweden at a sold-out Ernst Happel Stadium (kick-off 7.45) with their golden boy David Alaba once again the ringmaster.

Both nations are in a three-way tussle with Ireland for second spot in the group – behind runaway leaders Germany. Each have eight points, with Sweden's game in hand against the Faroe Islands being contested on Tuesday.

A most desirable outcome for the Irish tonight is a draw. Three points for either nation marginalises the Boys in Green further in the quest for a play-off place.

Unlike Lansdowne Road, there'll be a recently-crowned UEFA Champions League winner – along with a €30m target for Jose Mourinho – on show in the Austrian capital.

As Ireland fans know so well, courtesy of his late intervention back in March, Alaba won't be overshadowed on the pitch by anyone, even the great Sweden skipper Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

A hero's welcome is expected for the golden boy of Austrian football on his first return since helping Bayern Munich achieve European glory at Wembley stadium.

"It will take weeks until I can realise that success," said 20-year-old Alaba.

"There are simply beautiful moments that you never forget and want to experience again. Wembley was one. Now that I'm here with the national squad, the big goal we have is the World Cup.

"Austria has a great squad and a lot of strong players individually.

"We need that strength to come together on the field and then we should have good chances. We'll be up against one of the best players in the world, in Ibrahimovic, but we must concentrate on our own game."

Tasked with muzzling the Swedish ace will be another rising star of Austrian football, Aleksander Dragovic. Having just turned 22, the centre-back has courted admirers for his season at FC Basel, whom he helped reach the Europa League semi-final.

Arsenal have confirmed their interest, but he faces the toughest test of his career on home turf against the PSG star. Still, the defender is relishing the challenge – even describing it as "fun."

"I'm not afraid of Zlatan," he said bullishly. "He is a cool guy and the world's best striker, in my opinion.

"I have great respect for him as a player and I know it will be tough to stop him.

"It should be fun and a great challenge to meet him."

For Ibrahimovic, the tepid display he and his team produced before their own fans in the goalless draw against Ireland still rankles.

"The draw against Ireland was two points dropped," he insists. "We are capable of winning these two games (against Austria and Faroes) to make sure we can enjoy more of our summer holiday."

Irish Independent

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