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Will Zlatan shine as Ireland face Sweden in Euro 2016 opener?
Group E of Euro 2016 gets underway on Monday with what appears to be a clash of the heavyweights and the also-rans. Sweden take on Ireland at the Stade de France in a game considered to be a shootout between third and fourth. Belgium and Italy, who play in Lyon, are primed for first or second.
Of course tournament football is never that straightforward. And, though World Cup quarter-finalists Belgium are among the favourites for the Henri Delaunay trophy next month, they have to prove their worth.
Suggesting such a thing to Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be intriguing. And probably dangerous.
The striker is known for his karate kicks and if his physical size doesn’t intimidate then the self-esteem can crush. The ego landed in France four years ago at Paris Saint-Germain and since then Ibrahimovic has broken PSG scoring records and helped them to a double treble. They won the French title, the French Cup and the League Cup in 2015 and repeated the feat in 2016.
He is the one star player in the Sweden squad. His team mates accept this and he is comfortable with his elevated position.
“I want to take the pressure off the team,” he said on the eve of the match against Ireland. “I am used to it. So I want to take the pressure of my teammates as much as possible.”
With his age now 34, this is likely to be Ibrahimovic’s last European championship. It is fitting it takes place where he has sparkled so brightly in the PSG constellation. On announcing his departure from the club at the end of the season, he said he arrived at PSG “like a king and left like a legend”.
The 2016 European championship will be his sixth chance to illuminate a tournament with his country. At the World Cup in 2002, he was a rising star as Sweden lost in the last 16 to Senegal. At the 2012 European Championships, they didn’t make it past the group stages.
O'Neill Ireland's not-so-bad cop
Ireland suffered the same fate at the last championships. They lost their games against Croatia, Spain and Italy. They don’t have a star player but they do have a different manager. Giovanni Trappatoni led the campaign in Poland four years ago. He was replaced in November 2013 by Martin O’Neill who has drafted in former Ireland skipper Roy Keane as his assistant.
While Trappatoni’s reign was marked with discipline and rigidity, an element of humour underpins O’Neill’s stewardship. Describing the new management team, O’Neill said he was the bad cop and Keane would be the bad, bad cop. There has also been a relaxed approach towards the players who were allowed time off to spend with their families before travelling to their base in Versailles.
Monday night at the Stade de France will highlight whether O’Neill has created the correct momentum for the tournament. So can a collection of journeymen stop Zlatan’s progress? Are Ireland, as they were four years ago, destined for a slough of despond?