Wednesday 13 December 2017

Ibrahimovic and Keane in fight to leave one talisman standing

David Kelly

David Kelly

Every room has a mood music that tells you something if you know how to listen.

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic sashays into the media room of the Friends Arena, they may as well have piped Dino crooning 'Volare' through the speakers.

After that, it's all cool jazz. Improvised; but of course.

In all, a 10-minute saunter through a series of mildly nerdish tactical quizzing from the serious Swedes and inevitable diversions into the Sky Sports-generated la-la land of planet Beckham.

He hasn't always patiently engaged the locals; he once refused all interaction with them after one of his – many – temper tantrums with one of his – many – former employers.

Today, however, he is positively flirtatious.

But when he curls his left lip upwards to apparently signify a smile of wry amusement, it pays to look again.

Because you can't help feeling that he is the only one who knows that this is, in fact, a display of utter contempt for those supplicating him for eager mouthfuls of perceived wisdom.

When Robbie Keane arrives with his overly protective, avuncular manager in tow, the mood music is more upbeat, defiant, energetic.

Cymbals clashing to signal feisty battle being joined. Two captains colliding.


For it is impossible to escape the sense that tonight in the Friends Arena, a clash of two teams may just as easily be distilled into a confrontation between these two highly gifted individuals.

Both are much-travelled, free-scoring strikers who have commanded multi-million salaries and transfer fees throughout their long careers.

Both are captains of relatively limited international teams, but it is here the comparisons thin a tad.

While the Swede is preparing for an assault on the Champions League quarter-finals and Barcelona, his counterpart is in the early part of the MLS season, with two legs against Mexico's Monterrey in the less-heralded CONCACAF Champions League on the horizon.

They are at once tied by so many common binds and still separated by – literally and metaphorically – an ocean in terms of their respective worth in what passes for meaningful levels of club football.

Ibrahimovic could very well transcend this occasion in the same manner that he did so against England last November, when his stunning hat-trick here served as a reminder to all of his immense talent ( .com/watch?v=zXG28ABooU4).

Is it also as probable that Keane, now so marginalised in terms of the serious cutting edge of the world club game, can also aspire to ascend to such inordinate levels of influence as that displayed by his opposite number?

And, even if his deeds cannot hope to compete with the often peerless skills deployed by this son of the Balkans, can Keane's leadership perhaps rise to the standards now being set by the seemingly – if belatedly – maturing Ibrahimovic?

For after all, this is the man who, when his side were 3-0 down at half-time to Germany in fortress Berlin and seemingly in the direst of straits, responded in such an authoritative, restorative manner at the tea break that his troops rallied to commit an extraordinary comeback.

This is not normally the stuff one expects from a preening peacock whose egotistical excesses would make even J-Lo blush.

Last Sunday here in the Friends Arena, the sport of bandy – think hurling on ice – the respective team captains sang the national anthem and delivered rousing speeches to their supporters.

Asked how he could follow that – such temerity to ask Zlatan to follow anything – the Swedish captain shrugged his shoulders impishly.

"Perhaps I can score a goal like the last one I scored here against England," he says. Quite.

As Marco Van Basten once told him, he confides, "the best inspiration is to score goals."

It is something he has done, and continues to do, quite readily on the most glittering of stages.

Giovanni Trapattoni knows this from bitter experience. After all, his late equaliser at Euro 2004 sounded virtually the death knell for the Italian's unsatisfactory helming of his national side.

"I remember very, very well," Trapattoni mournfully muses. "He is very strong physically. Our goalkeeper wasn't strong. I don't forget this goal. Ibra is Ibra."

The respect for the Swede's iconic status is well-observed.

Can Keane still inspire such loyalty from his troops and deliver when it really matters, particularly in such a callow team shorn of eight Euro 2012 starters?

Or was his absence from Ireland's own recent run-in with the Germans – the 6-1 humiliation in Dublin – an indication that he still remains, for all his critics, an indispensable talisman for his country?

Under Trapattoni, Keane remains integrally important in terms of end product.

The Italian's 30 competitive internationals have produced just 40 goals; Keane has scored more than a third of them (14).

The next best – Kevin Doyle (5) – is not here. Neither is Richard Dunne (3).

Remove Keane from the equation and you also remove Ireland's potential to score goals – at least under the unbending system deployed by a manager who remains as loyal to his schema as he does his only trusted schemer.

"Keane has had a great career, he has moved to America and is doing well," says Ibrahimovic, comments derived more from politeness than conviction, one feels.

"He is very important for the international team. He was a very good striker in the Premier League, he has a good record."

The tactical deployment of the pair will offer intriguing reference points, too.

Erik Hamren will deploy the wily Tobias Hysen up front; Trapattoni the pacy, strong Shane Long.

The captains will stand poised, decoratively, amidst that elusive space between midfield and attack.

"He has more of a free position," says Hamren of his man. "He is allowed drop, pick up balls and find space behind the No 9. Sometimes, he is the front guy, sometimes not. He's got that role."

Ibrahimovic is clearly enthused.

"I like the role that I have today. I like to come down and meet the ball when the play is closed ahead," he says.

"And then to be up top when we have a chance. It's about finding the balance."

Hamren agrees.

"In my opinion, to use him best, you need players to take the run for him," he explains. "But he takes the runs too.

"Scoring against England showed he runs deeps too. But he can't take them all the time, his body is not built for that. You will see him in different style tomorrow."

So too Keane.

"Playing away from home against a strong team, my role will certainly change a small bit, dropping in and making that extra midfielder," he explains.

"Playing in the hole and stopping their midfielders from playing. It's certainly different to playing against the Faroes.

"Shane will be a lot higher up and me underneath him. But I've known how to play it for a long time and I'm very familiar with it."

Tonight will reveal all.

"Words are easy. But the job is difficult."

This is Trapattoni's phrase.

All the while, Zlatan seems utterly at ease. Asked if being back in Sweden instead of France will change him, the lip curls upwards once more and the ponytail wags disdainfully.

"I am still Zlatan."

Can Robbie Keane match such a player's seemingly unimpeachable faith in his own ability?

For Ireland's sake, he simply has to be in the mood.

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