Monday 19 March 2018

The one-man team?

Ibrahimovic the only world-class player that will line out at Lansdowne Road – stop him and you stop Sweden, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring his third goal during last year's international against England
Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring his third goal during last year's international against England

One man on a mission

HE is the only man to play every minute of Sweden's qualification campaign to date, their leading scorer, their captain, their talisman.

The hopes of a nation rest on the broad shoulders of Zlatan Ibrahimovic tomorrow night, much as they did back in March when Ireland kept the Paris Saint-Germain man quiet and took a point home from Stockholm.

The 31-year-old striker has commanded €171.1m in transfer fees over the course of a career that has seen him play at a host of Europe's top clubs. He is in a realm above anyone in Ireland's squad.

However, he also operates in a higher sphere to the men he will lead out on to the Lansdowne Road pitch tomorrow night. Ibrahimovic may line out for one of the world's richest clubs, but many of his team-mates rub shoulders with their Irish opponents at mid-ranking clubs in England, while others operate at a similar level in Italy.

There are a few operating at Champions League level, with Pontus Wernbloom lining out for CSKA Moscow, Mikael Lustig at Celtic and reserve goalkeeper Johan Wiland representing FC Copenhagen.

Ibrahimovic will be the sole world star on the pitch. The only one whose name is mentioned in the same dispatches as the Messis, the Ronaldos, the Bales.


So it would seem clear that he represents the main difference between two sides whose World Cup fates will most likely be decided in Dublin 4. The job appears clear. Stop him and stop Sweden. If only it was that simple.

The problem appears to be carrying out the plan. After all, plenty of teams have tried and failed to put the kibosh on a man who, when he is in the mood, is almost impossible to stop.

Then there is the evidence that, while his virtuoso displays against England and Norway in friendlies were mightily impressive, he hasn't worked alone in Sweden's big displays in this campaign.

Ibrahimovic may have been the inspiration behind the stunning fightback that saw the Swedes come from 4-0 down to draw with Germany in Berlin, but he needed help from Rasmus Elm (absent tomorrow night), Lustig and Johann Elmander, who joined him on the scoresheet. He got the decisive goals in both wins over the Faroes, while Elm and Marcus Berg got the key goals against Kazakhstan.

Goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson has since argued the performance at the Olympic Stadium proved there is more to Erik Hamren's team than their skipper. "We showed that we are not a one-man team in that game," he said.

"We were knocked out in that first half. We were on our knees and nothing was working for us. Germany were playing really good football. We were passive and not aggressive enough.

"But in the second half we managed to turn it around. We showed the team spirit was really good. The performance of our players, we managed to rise up again and fight for it."

The return of Elmander is the major change to the Swedish squad from the scoreless draw in March and his ability to occupy Ireland's expected centre halves John O'Shea and Richard Dunne should complement his strike partner.

Conversely, if all the attention is given to Ibrahimovic, then the striker who joined Norwich on loan from Galatasary this summer will surely find space and, as his clubmate Anthony Pilkington explains, he can take full advantage.

"He looks a strong player. He is a good player and a lot of their focus is on Ibrahimovic, but if you concentrate on one player and give them too much respect...

"This week we will be concentrating on what we can do against Sweden," the uncapped Ireland winger said.

However, for all the talk of stopping Sweden as a team, there is one threat that has occupied the mind of Giovanni Trapattoni and his management team over the past number of months.

"Ibrahimovic is a player who, if he decides to play, he plays very well and scores goals," assistant manager Marco Tardelli admitted.

"Sometimes it can happen that he doesn't play very well, but I would prefer to have him in my team. The best player is on the pitch and I am very scared about him because he is a very good player.

"There are good players (in the Sweden squad). Larsson is good player, Kacaniklic of Fulham is a very good player, Lustig too, also Olsson who plays with (Shane) Long.

"If Ibrahimovic plays, he can do everything. I think we are similar. If we play like England, like Wales, like Georgia with same attitude and mentality, we can win."

Ireland coped with him at the Friends Arena and got the point they needed. Tomorrow night, the plan once more is to deal with Ibrahimovic and hope that doing so dims the others.

Ireland will be hoping neutralising the one man will stop the team and clear their route to Brazil.

Zlatan's campaign in numbers

Matches played: 6

Minutes played: 540

Goals: 4

Assists: 2

Yellow Cards: 1

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