Sunday 18 February 2018

Massaging Ibrahimovic ego best way to blunt his threat

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Sweden's talisman
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Sweden's talisman
James Lawton

James Lawton

Winning Serie A five times, the European Cup and the World Cup – the last with one of the boldest strikes of your entire career – is hardly the prelude to a nervous disposition.

So we just have to believe that Giovanni Trapattoni's assistant Marco Tardelli is deep into reverse psychology when he speaks of his terror over the possibilities Zlatan Ibrahimovic brings to the Aviva Stadium tonight.

Tardelli, who held his nerve so well to see off the formidable West Germans at the Bernabeu in 1982, says the big man can do "everything" to a degree that leaves him scared.

Scared? Here is the alternative theory: Tardelli, with Trapattoni's agreement, has been hell-bent on leaving unchallenged Ibrahimovic's mountainous self-belief.

The Swede's natural ability has never been questioned since he emerged from a turbulent youth to star for his home town club Malmo before moving on to such power centres of the game as Ajax, Internazionale, Barcelona, Milan and now the newly plutocratic Paris Saint-Germain.


More debatable down the years has been his ability to produce a seamless body of work; coruscating one moment, anonymous the next, Ibrahimovic even at this late hour remains one of the game's enigmas.

There has been one consistency, however, and maybe Tardelli was touching upon it when he issued his gush of praise before the qualifier which might just keep open the road to Rio. It is the fact that it never did anyone much good questioning Ibrahimovic's own lofty view of his status.

When he arrived at Ajax, a place familiar with the most exceptional individual talent, he was asked to describe his game.

"Very technical," said the young Swede of the brooding nature and the Balkan blood. "But you are so very big," said a sceptical Dutchman. "Big, yes," he said, "but you see I have technical feet."

He has indeed and last November they were never more evident to an English audience that had long questioned his ranking among the world's best players.

Ibrahimovic scored twice against Arsenal in a Champions League tie during his unhappy spell with Barcelona but down the years he had mostly been subdued against English opposition. In the Stockholm friendly it was though he was picking away, thread by thread, a dismissive verdict.

Ibrahimovic was sublime but when it was claimed that his fourth of four goals was arguably one of the greatest in the history of the game, we were back at the nub of the debate.

Was he truly a great player, the kind who could produce his best in any circumstances, or merely a creator of unforgettable moments, brilliant in execution but inconsequential in the history of his trade?

When he hit the ball back over his head and into the English net some said it was both exquisite skill and brilliant judgment.

Others pointed out that it came in added time in a game of no competitive significance.

If Tardelli had decided upon a more provocative analysis he might have said that if Ibrahimovic could do everything it was less certain that he could do so in every situation, and especially tonight's.

Pep Guardiola was profoundly underwhelmed at Barca, conceiving the phantom striking role for Lionel Messi and shipping quickly back to Italy a man who, when the price of Samuel Eto'o was added on, cost the club £60m.

Ibrahimovic's response was magnificently imperious, of course. He said: "It was like buying a Ferrari and driving it like a Fiat."

His scorn for Guardiola was regal. "If Mourinho brightens a room, Guardiola pulls down the curtains," he declared. "I told Guardiola to go to hell. I was mad and if I had been him I would have been frightened."


The huge question for tonight's match is the degree of intimidation that might be felt by Richard Dunne and his central defence partner John O'Shea. For all Ibra's weight of presence and touch, the guess has to be that it will not be unmanageable.

The veterans know how to defend and, if they are aware that last weekend their adversary conjured a late goal to help confound some dogged defending by newly prompted Guingamp, it is also true that Ibrahimovic is not likely to benefit from too much invention by his Swedish colleagues.

It means that Dunne and O'Shea cannot afford a single moment of inattention if Ireland are to stay alive – and achieve the kind of momentum that was so cruelly stolen from them in Paris before the last World Cup. Nor must they dwell on the soaring assessment of Tardelli.

Better for the ego of Ibrahimovic to remain unprovoked in that place where it has always been most comfortable. Or, to put it in the way Tardelli may have intended, in the undisturbed serenity of his own mind.

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