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Zlatan: I'm ready for whatever the Irish throw at me

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Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

ZLATAN. Such a big presence that he doesn't even need the addition of a surname to explain to any football fan just who we are talking about. Whether it's the football-loving dad in his 50s or the Panini-collecting schoolkid, they all know who Zlatan is.

It's hard to recall the last time that the Republic of Ireland went into a competitive match where there was so much talk about just one player on the opposing side. Even in the 2002 World Cup campaign, when Ireland's players had to battle with big stars of the era like Kluivert, Van Nistelrooy and Figo, or the previous World Cup campaign when Zidane, Henry and Vieira gave the French their backbone, Ireland were never seen as facing a one-man team.

But there's an element of that ahead of tonight's game in Stockholm, as the big man from Malmo, currently earning an insanely high salary at Paris St-Germain, is their talisman, their main man.

Is "kicking him into row Z", as Alan Kelly joked about the way to combat Ibrahimovic, the only way to stop him from wreaking havoc? Zlatan, in return, is happy to throw the joke back.

"I am prepared for everything," he said when asked if he was aware that the opposing side might try to kick him out of the game.

"If the opponents do what they can to prevent the other team, us too, but we try to do it in a different way, that's all. Hopefully it will be a nice game with no one getting injured.

"It will be a hard game. Trap has set up a good strategy for the game but we are prepared. We play at home and hopefully we can control the game, (but) it's not easy against a good opponent like Ireland."

We have our own talisman in Ireland with Robbie Keane starting again in Stockholm, as it's been a decade since a fit Keane was left out of the starting XI for a competitive game by any Ireland manager, and it's still unthinkable for the current boss to drop Keane.

Zlatan dominates to the extent that he seems to have his own game-plan permitted by the manager, with Sweden coach Erik Hamren effectively admitting at yesterday's press conference that his star player more or less does what he wants.

"There is so much discussion about whether he is a number nine or 10, but he will be one of two forwards for us," Hamren said.

"He has more of a free position, he is allowed to go and pick up the ball, find space behind the nine. Sometimes he is the front man and sometimes not, he has that role, you will see him in different styles."

Zlatan has had a difficult relationship with Sweden and the Swedish team, announcing his international retirement at one stage only to recant and return to play.

And he did try to stir home passions ahead of this game – Sweden's first competitive match in their shiny new stadium. "It is us who should control the game, it is we who are at home," he said.

The PSG man has a history with the Ireland manager, as it was a Zlatan goal at Euro 2004, against a Trap-managed Italy, which caused Italy problems for the rest of the tournament. Italy were beating the Swedes 1-0 with five minutes to go only for Zlatan to score and level matters, making it harder for Italy to qualify for the knock-out stages.

"I remember very, very well this goal in 2004. He is very strong physically, he has experience, he scores many goals," said Trapattoni of the French-based forward.

Ibrahimovic is currently on a tally of 39 goals from his 86 caps and while the big occasion for the Swedes tonight is the fact that Kim Kallstrom, a team-mate of Aiden McGeady at Spartak Moscow, wins his 100th cap, Zlatan would love nothing more than to play to the crowd, on this new piece of turf, and make that 40-goal milestone.


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