“Zlatan can put a whole team under pressure just by himself, but we have to concentrate on our own game … and try to limit their strengths,” Lazio winger Antonio Candreva said.
After a frustrating 1-1 draw with Republic of Ireland in which Ibrahimovic failed to sparkle despite playing a decisive role in Ciaran Clark’s late own goal, the Swedes are under pressure ahead of Friday’s Group E clash in Toulouse.
A defeat would leave the Scandinavians needing to beat Belgium, ranked number two in the world, in their last group game and hope they get among the four best third-placed group finishers to sneak into the last 16.
Sweden coach Erik Hamren is already dubious.
“Even though we managed to come back and equalise, I am disappointed. We will need to play at 300 percent to get through,” he said after their opening draw.
Sweden will really need the talents of Ibrahimovic, their talisman for many seasons. One of the most feared strikers in the world, Ibrahimovic’s ability to produce moments of goalscoring magic have delighted fans for the past decade.
He hit 11 goals for Sweden in their qualifying campaign, only two shy of German Robert Lewandowski, and with the pressure now on the towering striker Italy coach Antonio Conte has sounded a warning.
The Ibra effect
“I like Ibra a lot, above all when he plays for the national team. He’s got plenty of character, and he leads by example,” said the Italy handler.
“He’s become even stronger over the past few years, and he’s still progressing. He’s a very strong player who can destabilise a whole team.”
Ibrahimovic’s talents on the pitch are only exceeded by his penchant for self-promotion off it. Although Friday’s game would be the perfect occasion for ‘Ibra’ to defy his detractors, Italy won’t relinquish their new-found confidence easily.
Italy, who have suffered first-round exits from the past two editions of the World Cup, were given no hope before the competition.
But after a deserved 2-0 win over Group E favourites Belgium, the Azzurri are brimming with belief.
“Before the Euro, all the newspapers said we wouldn’t get past the first round, that we didn’t have technically gifted players,” said Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi, who is celebrating becoming a father after his partner gave birth to a baby daughter in recent days.
“A lot of unfounded claims were made. Now, after one game, people are starting to believe in us again.”
Italy, beaten 4-0 by Spain in the 2012 Euro final, are hoping to make amends for their second successive first-round exit from the World Cup, in Brazil two years ago.
It led to the resignation of coach Cesare Prandelli, and in the aftermath reports claimed Italy were undone by a lack of team unity.
Under no-nonsense Conte, who will take over at Chelsea after the tournament, Italy were virtually impenetrable at the back against Belgium, while dynamic and creative in midfield and attack.
Conte will be wary after Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Eder and Thiago Motta were all cautioned Monday, meaning they are one booking away from a one-match suspension.
Candreva, meanwhile, said he does not expect the Swedes to make it easy.
“Sweden struggled for 60 minutes against Ireland but against us they’ll be hoping to play the game of their lives,” he said. “It will be a hard match.”