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Mar 21, 2013

Influential Ibra ready to deliver for Sweden

Of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic ultimately delivered. Throughout a generally restrained pre-match press conference at Stockholm's Friends Arena on Thursday - in which the Swede paid the highest of respect to Giovanni Trapattoni, Robbie Keane and Ireland in general - he was eventually asked whether there were any differences between his performances for his country and those for his club at Paris Saint-Germain.

• Sweden v Ireland preview

"No differences at all," the forward breezily said. "Same Zlatan." It was typical Ibrahimovic, right down to the dramatic pause for effect and the use of the third person. Even more notably, in providing the kind of charismatic line everyone in the room clearly craved, it reflected the fact he is one of those rare players who can create as many headlines for what he says as what he does.

This, however, is not to cast doubt on his supreme ability. Rather, it only illustrates his undeniable aura. As could be witnessed from the pack of journalists rushing to the press conference when he was due to be put up, Ibrahimovic has an edge that is even lacking in Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. They may remain his superiors for influence on the pitch, but can't match him for statements off it. Not even close. Whereas the Argentine generally speaks in cliches when on the record and the Portuguese usually sticks to the script unless he is angling for a new contract or transfer, Ibrahimovic betrays no such media-training. He is assured enough to say exactly what he feels.

Naturally enough, then, Ibrahimovic also gave an elaborate enough response when one TV station predictably asked him about his Parisian team-mate David Beckham. The much more relevant former Manchester United midfielder, however, was Roy Keane.

There is a rather famous story, amid a huge number of them, about how the Irish legend was once put up for a press conference by one of his sponsors. Beforehand, the journalists were given a sheet of paper with questions approved by the company - obviously, nothing controversial or contentious. Keane took one look at the page before ripping it up.

"Right," he said. "I think we're old enough now that you can ask me any questions you like and, if there are any I don't like, I just won't answer them."

Keane, of course, got away with such behaviour because he frequently answered every question on the pitch and regularly asked even more demanding ones of others. He set the tone.

The parallels between him and Ibrahimovic, though, don't just stop at the media profile and the eager anticipation at what they'll say next.

The Irish present in Stockholm this week can't help but notice the manner in which the forward monopolises absolutely everything Sweden now do in the way Keane used to for his country in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup. Just like with Ireland at that time, virtually every question about the squad now comes back to one man - his form, his fitness, his thoughts, his influence, his mood.

It isn't so much a case of big fish in a small pond, but fearsome great white sharks consuming or frightening virtually anything around them.

This, obviously, is not to say that Keane and Ibrahimovic are similar in style or even ability. In fact, one answer the Swede gave on Thursday perfectly illustrated the difference.

When Ibrahimovic was asked about light-hearted suggestions from the Irish camp that they would have to "kick him" to stop him, he simply said he's "prepared for everything".

As goes without saying, it would have been Keane doing the kicking back in the day. Indeed, in one of Ireland's most famous wins and the midfielder's most respected performances, Keane set the tone for the crucial September 2001 qualifier against Holland by flattening Marc Overmars within seconds of kick-off. By the 67th-minute, after Gary Kelly was sent off, Keane had set up the game's only goal for 10-man Ireland with a coruscating run.

That, of course, is the key difference. Whereas Keane drove games, Ibrahimovic tends to decorate them. Both, however, have dominated them.

In Thursday's press conference, in fact, Erik Hamren inadvertently outlined Ibrahimovic's sheer importance as he tried to explain his position - or, rather, the lack of one.

"If you want, you can say we're playing 4-4-2 [rather than 4-2-3-1]. He's free. He's allowed to go down and pick up the balls and find the space behind the number-nine, and sometimes he's the front guy. He's got that role. In my opinion, that's the way to use him best. He takes the runs too, as he showed in scoring against England."

Whatever about four-goal hauls in meaningless friendlies, though, Ibrahimovic has propelled his side to results every bit as improbable as Ireland's 1-0 win over the Dutch in September 2001.

In October last year, after all, they were 4-0 down away to a vaunted German side after 61 minutes. It could have got a lot worse. Instead, Ibrahimovic struck right then to initiate one of the greatest comebacks in his country's history.

Friday's game, meanwhile, could go a long way to deciding his country's immediate future. With just a point separating Sweden and Ireland, the battle for second place in Uefa Group C behind Germany is expected to be exclusively fought between those two.

And, although it may be obvious, this contest is ultimately going to be all about Ibrahimovic. Because, when you take him out, there isn't actually too much of a difference between the sides. In fact, they're quite well matched.

Whereas Sweden are a decent young side with a focus on attack but not necessarily the ability to consistently maximise it, Ireland are a decent young side with a focus on defence but not necessarily the ability to always depend on it. The difference, beyond the styles of play, is Ibrahimovic.

If he turns it on in any way, it could be a very difficult night for the Irish. If they shackle him, though, they should fancy themselves to come away with a fine result.

Of course, we're now long past the stage of questioning Ibrahimovic's record in "big games". He has produced in Clasicos and Serie A title-deciders that he will undeniably see as far more significant than a match against Ireland.

What Ibrahimovic hasn't done, however, is dominate an entire Champions League season or complete international campaign in the manner Keane used to. He can go a long way to rectifying that by delivering on Friday.

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