There’s always some sort of circus around Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
This time it’s speculation around his club future, but Sweden’s coach says his team is immune to all the fanfare that surrounds Ibrahimovic.
Ibrahimovic is widely expected to join Manchester United after the European Championship, while some other reports link him with a move to hometown club Malmo.
When asked if all the speculation was having a negative effect on the squad, Sweden coach Erik Hamren said “it’s nothing that bothers us.”
“Of course a big player like Ibrahimovic attracts a lot of attention,” Hamren said Thursday, a day before the Group E clash with Italy at the Stadium de Toulouse. “I haven’t felt anything destructive. It doesn’t affect us at all.”
In fact, players are looking to their star player for inspiration as Sweden prepares to face the Azzurri, which surprised many with its clinical 2-0 win over Belgium.
After all, Ibrahimovic has form in delivering against Italy.
Defensive midfielder Kim Kallstrom recalled being on the field when Ibrahimovic scored an equalizer against Italy with a remarkable backward flick.
“I remember we were trailing and we fought back and that Zlatan scored a fantastic goal,” Kallstrom said. “He introduced himself on the world stage. And it made it possible for us to progress in the tournament. It’s a good memory and we take that into the game.”
Ibrahimovic also played a key part in Sweden’s equalizer against Ireland in its opening Euro 2016 match against Ireland. His teasing ball across goal confused Irish defender Ciaran Clark, who ended up putting it into his own net to make it 1-1.
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who could only watch as Ibrahimovic’s audacious shot sailed past him back in 2004, doesn’t relish facing Sweden’s star man again on Friday.
“I don’t have great memories about that goal if I’m quite honest,” Buffon said. “It has become one of his specialties and when he does it, it’s no longer surprising. Clearly, we are very wary of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, because he’s one of a very small group of superstars.”
Hamren recognizes that his team will need to start better than it did against Ireland if Sweden has any chance of getting something out of the match with Italy.
“Both coaches and players were really disappointed, especially the first 50 minutes” of the Ireland match, Hamren said. “I thought we did ok, but as a whole we’re not happy.”
Sweden will face a sterner test against an Italian team that many had written off before the tournament. But Italy’s strong performance against Belgium in the first match wasn’t a surprise to Hamren, who praised the 3-5-2 setup adopted by Italy coach Antonio Conte.
“They have three very strong central defenders,” he said. “We have to make sure we take our chances when we get them, especially on give-and-go and set pieces. Those are the two best ways to score tomorrow.”
Hamren expects Italy to have the majority of possession and that Sweden’s defenders will need to be alert to the deep runs Italy’s players are likely to make.
“It’s about finding a good balance between attacking and defending,” he said. “They play a lot of deep balls so we have to have good communication between defenders and midfield. We have to perform up front. We need to give the ball to the forward to give them something to work with.”