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Dare to stop Zlatan, and Ireland can dare to dream

Stifling the influence of the former AC Milan and Barcelona star will be key to Irish hopes this evening.

The striker has scored in 19 of his last 21 competitive internationals.
The striker has scored in 19 of his last 21 competitive internationals.

IRELAND’S CHANCES OF emerging unscathed from their Euro 2016 opener against Sweden rest on the ability of Martin O’Neill’s side to quell the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Sweden’s reliance on the self-regarding striker is truly astounding. Since their underwhelming group stage exit at Euro 2012, Ibrahimovic has either scored or assisted 74 per cent of the goals netted by Erik Hamren’s side in the 21 competitive matches involving the frontman. Sweden only won one of the eight that Ibrahimovic missed, against the minnows of Liechtenstein.

Ibrahimovic also rescued a poor qualification campaign for his nation, single-handedly settling their Scandinavian derby with Denmark in the playoffs. A three-goal haul, including two in the away leg, was the difference between the two sides.

The 34-year-old is all too aware of his centrality to Sweden’s chances in France. Speaking at a Sunday press conference, Ibrahimovic refused to play down his importance.

“We always have pressure and, probably, I have the greatest pressure on my shoulders,” he said. “I want to take the pressure off the team. I am used to it. So, I want to take the pressure off my team-mates as much as possible.”

O’Neill’s assistant Roy Keane is also a fan of free agent, who has been heavily linked with Manchester United after the expiry of his contract with Paris Saint-Germain.

“Of course he’s a good fit for United, he’s a good player,” Keane said. “Is he like Eric Cantona? They’re big characters, clearly, whatever you say about Cantona he was a popular lad, and I get the impression Zlatan is the same.”

Ibrahimovic, who recently referred to himself in an interview with CNN as an “11 out of 10″ player and a “20 out of 10″ person, is the focal point of a typically compact and workmanlike Swedish 4-4-2, which can look like a 4-4-1-1 when the striker exercises his freedom to roam deep and dictate play.

Key, therefore, to Irish success this evening is the player that Martin O’Neill likes to station between his defence and midfield.

Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan must stick tight to Ibrahimovic when Ireland are on the attack, as the Swedes regularly initiate counter-attacks by looking to their main man as the recipient of the first pass out of defence.

Zlatan aside, Hamren’s probable starting XI are unlikely to strike fear into Irish hearts. Both of Ibrahimovic’s potential partners, John Guidetti and Marcus Berg, are unprolific target men that the aerially accomplished Irish backline should deal with comfortably.

In midfield, the primary function of wide players Emil Forsberg and Jimmy Durmaz will be to tuck in beside Albin Ekdal and Kim Kallstrom and help to press Ireland’s diamond midfield. O’Neill’s favoured full backs Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady will have plenty of room to advance if they are instructed to do so.

In defence, centre backs Andreas Granqvist and Victor Nilsson-Lindelof are stopper types, who flourish in aerial skirmishes but are vulnerable to pace in behind. This lack of mobility, paired with Hamren’s relatively high defensive line, means that Shane Long and Jonathan Walters may fancy their chances.

Little to fear for O’Neill and his charges then, apart from Hamren’s vainglorious talisman, who insisted on Sunday that “the legend can still deliver”. An expectant Irish nation hope otherwise. Dare to stop Zlatan, and Ireland can dare to dream.

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