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Feb 23, 2009

Ibrahimovic not overawed by United riches

You may be surprised to hear Inter Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the tributes to his opponent on the eve of an eagerly anticipated Champions League encounter, yet thus is the case ahead of Manchester United's visit to the San Siro.

While Ibrahimovic is often accused of being one of football's more self-obsessed souls, the enigmatic Swede has been signing the praises of Sir Alex Ferguson's champions with gusto ahead of the clash between the cream of English and Italian football at the San Siro on Tuesday night.

The in-form marksman is clearly a big fan of the reigning European champions and in hailing United as the favourites to see off the champions-elect of Italy's Serie A in the most enticing clash of the last 16, Ibrahimovic is convinced Jose Mourinho's men can find a way past a side in ominous form.

"United have been on a great run of late, but who is to say we won't be the team to brings them back down to earth," begins the striker who has been in fine form for Inter alongside rejuvenated strike partner Adriano. "If we don't believe this can be the case no one will and as we are a side who have become used to winning, why not.

"I have to say United are an impressive side. They have succeeded in combining English physicality with a Latin/South American flair and they are a major threat going forward. Keep Cristiano Ronaldo quiet and Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov will show. Limit the influence of Ryan Giggs, but then you have Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick or the full-backs to think about.

"United are the exact opposite of a team like Liverpool, who prefer to sit back and hit on the counter. Manchester play with panache and fluidity. They take risks and can leave themselves exposed at times, so this may be an area we can try and exploit.

"The two sides have a nice lead at the top of their domestic leagues and confidence will be high for both. It would be fair to say United are the favourites because their record in this competition recently is better than ours, but I see it this 50-50 match that will only be decided late in the second-leg.

"It's unusual for us to be the underdogs and this can work in our favour. They have all the pressure of being European champions, the favourite for this tie and the whole competition, so let's see if we can raise our game to match them."

If United are to stumble unexpectedly at this stage of the competition, it's safe to assume Ibrahimovic will have to play a major role in their downfall. Often brilliant and occasionally anonymous, this unpredictable striker has the ability to score goals most players cannot even imagine in their wildest dreams.

Part of his mystique is that you never quite know when a rabbit will be pulled out of his magic hat, yet he seems to revel in the spotlight he now enjoys at Inter. A star turn for Jose Mourinho throughout a successful Serie A campaign for the Nerazzurri, he accepts Champions League glory is being demanded at a club whose failings in this competition have been well documented down the years.

"The aim for everyone at Inter is to win this trophy as soon as possible and hopefully it will happen next May," continues Ibrahimovic. "President Moratti isn't the only one who has set his heart on being a European champion as we are all determined to make it happen. This club hasn't won the European Cup for forty-something years, which is a long time to wait.

"Everyone has got a little crazy about our problems in the Champions League and we find a solution. The press have given us a rough ride and they don't treat us with the respect we deserve.

"Since I came to Inter, we've won the Serie A title twice and are on course for another this season, yet all you hear is how Inter are not up to the mark in Europe. To shut up the critics is all the motivation we need. It's hard to know why things have not worked for us in Europe. We've gone out in the first knock-out round in this last two season and that can't be good enough.

"We had Marco Materazzi sent off early against Liverpool at Anfield last season, but still managed to hold out until being caught out by two late goals. The year before we lost on away goals to Valencia, when we were the only side looking to make a game of it. Now there can be no excuses and the desire to make up for past disappointments could make all the difference.

"Another plus is our coach Jose Mourinho, who knows what is required to win the Champions League. I think we can trust him to plot a way past Manchester United and we are generally we're much stronger mentally than we were a year ago. We are more mature, experienced and aggressive when we need to be."

Mourinho's influence on the Inter dressing room has been all positive and he appears to have cracked the Ibrahimovic code as the Sweden international has flourished under the guidance of a coach who knows to handle players with complex reputations better than most.

The man known in England as 'The Special One' after he proclaimed himself to be just that following his arrival at Chelsea in 2004 may have failed to win over all observers in Italy, but his players have warmed to his unconventional charm.

"We knew we were getting a great coach when Mourinho arrived in the summer," adds Ibrahimovic. "He's proved himself one of the best in the world and tactically he is always quick-witted and decisive. His game plans are meticulous and have to be rigorously followed, but if something is not working, it's bang - an immediate change.

"Mourinho misses nothing on the pitch and stays one, two or even three steps ahead of the opposition. I like his confidence. He has charisma, warmth and huge enthusiasm. He creates unity in the squad. Guys want to play for him, to win for him."

Mourinho's impressive understanding of how to make top level footballers tick gives him a chance to get the very best out of complex individuals like Ibrahimovic and Adriano and this is one reason why Inter Milan have a chance of causing an upset against the current Champions League kings.

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