Swedes can't rely on one-man band to down Denmark

Swedes can't rely on one-man band to down Denmark
Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

With his prominent nose, sharp chin and ponytail, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always looked like he should be standing at the head of a Viking ship.

His appearance makes it more than just a game. It's Game of Thrones, an epic swords and sandals battle between the Nordic hordes.

He's more than a man. He's a Swedish myth, carrying the hopes of a nation in every qualification campaign.

The title of his autobiography accurately conveyed both his arrogance and his importance: I Am Zlatan.

It might as well have been called I Am Sweden.

The two are interchangeable, his dominance underlined earlier this week when he was named his country's Footballer of the Year for the 10th time, at the age of 34.

His infallibility is both a blessing and a curse. Sweden can't win without him and may not win with him against Denmark tomorrow morning (Singapore time).

The Euro 2016 play-off between Scandinavian foes has been billed as the final hurrah for the maverick who made hubris a way of life.

When Sweden fell short at the final play-off hurdle for last year's World Cup, Ibrahimovic declared: "A World Cup without me is nothing to watch, so it is not worthwhile to wait for the World Cup."

There was more than a grain of truth in the grandiose statement, that's what makes Ibrahimovic so endearing, the last of the enigmatic showmen equipped with a sharp turn in the box and an even sharper turn of phrase.

But the inevitable focus on the one with the forked tongue highlights the blunt instruments elsewhere. Sweden's squad are much like their native Ikea.

They're functional, always 4-4-2, mostly reliable, sometimes pretty and Ibrahimovic provides the essential Allen key.

Without him, the Swedes are misplaced planks in search of a master craftsman.

Erik Hamren's team sheet should read "Ibra and whoever else is fit".

TALISMAN

Even at 34, the Paris St Germain striker has carried his teammates and confounded the statisticians.

During the qualifying campaign, he netted eight goals in nine appearances - half of his country's total.

Only Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Mueller surpassed his tally, with both men profiting from superior service.

Ibrahimovic also chipped in with five assists. As Sweden clung on for a play-off spot, he delivered seven of their last 11 goals.

Age cannot weary him. He is shackled not by his birth certificate, but by a mediocre midfield and inferior strike partners.

At 23, John Guidetti is still finding his way at Celta Vigo and 29-year-old Ola Toivonen continues to misfire in a hopeless Sunderland side.

After various short stays across Europe, including Arsenal, Kim Kallstrom anchors central midfield and marshals two rather static lines. A mainstay during qualifying, he's also 33 and, unlike Ibra, looks his age.

Indeed time is not on Sweden's side. In the final group game, a 2-0 win against Moldova, their 4-4-2 line-up included seven players over 30. The central spine of Andreas Isaksson (34), Mikael Antonsson (34), Kallstrom (33) and Ibrahimovic (34) had 135 years between them.

The future might be bright for Sweden, after winning the European Under-21 championships, but the present is very much bathed in a twilight glow.

Denmark coach Morten Olsen, a wily dugout operative who's been in charge since 2000, has the simplest of orders if he wants to retire on a high.

Stop Sweden. Stop Ibrahimovic.

The straightforward approach has paid off for PSG's continental opponents. The goals have dried up in the Champions League. But the French side have Angel di Maria, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi to fall back on. The Swedes are stuck with a Sunderland loanee.

Denmark have also won four straight games against Sweden; recording clean sheets in every fixture.

On the flip side, the Danes have a cumbersome performer playing the Ibrahimovic role. His name is Nicklas Bendtner.

Denmark stumbled into the play-offs after failing to score in their last three group games. Bendtner featured in all three. Spot the common denominator.

So the Scandinavian skirmish kicks off with no clear favourites beyond the sentimental one up front.

Ibrahimovic was right. The World Cup wasn't the same without him. Euro 2016 would also sorely miss the pony-tailed prancer.

But he can't do it alone. Goal and assist responsibilities must be shared among Guidetti, Erkan Zengin and Sebastian Larsson out wide, and Oscar Lewicki, if he recovers from injury.

Like The Beatles, Ibrahimovic once compared himself to Jesus.

But on this occasion, he can only get by with a little help from his friends.


This article was first published on November 14, 2015.
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