How do you solve a problem like Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
I think Martin O’Neill’s solution to that conundrum will have a huge bearing on his team selection today and might even dictate the outcome of this crucial game for Ireland.
Is he going to do a job on Sweden’s superstar? Is he going to designate a midfield player to follow him around and try to stop him getting on the ball?
We know th at Zlatan likes to come deep and I don’t think Martin would want his centre-back coming out to mark him and leaving gaps in behind for other players to infiltrate the Irish defence from the Swedish midfield.
In my opinion, this is the really big call the manager has to make. The widespread view is that if you can stop Ibrahimovic then it seriously increases your chances of beating the Swedes. So how far is Martin O’Neill prepared to let that determine his selection? This is the kind of big decision the manager gets paid to make — and he has to get it right.
Trying to second-guess O’Neill is difficult, as we well know, but I have a feeling he will indeed designate someone to do that job. It could be James McCarthy. It could be Jeff Hendrick. It could even be Stephen Quinn.
And that might mean Wes Hoolahan doesn’t start. Particularly since it appears Jon Walters is fit enough to play. For Martin O’Neill to pick a team without a fit Walters — his go-to player — would be unthinkable.
So if, as I suspect, someone like Quinn is deployed as a designated marker of Ibrahimovic then there’s a real possibility that Hoolahan will be sacrificed.
Now only the outcome of the match would tell us if that is the right or wrong decision but, for my part, I don’t think it’s a sacrifice worth risking. I would always want to see Wes in the team because he gives the players around him confidence, he accepts huge responsibility to get on the ball and, as Damien Duff said in the RTÉ studio — and I agree with him — he really makes the whole team play.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if Martin leaves him out, at least at the start.
The most encouraging news for Ireland from the last couple of days was Walters’ apparent recovery from injury, though there must be some concern about his lack of game-time towards the end of the season.
Walters is a player who does a job for us both offensively and defensively. He’s got a great engine, great physical strength, and he unsettles defences. He showed all that in the qualification games and, ultimately, he and Shane Long proved to be a real handful for teams with their strength and their pace.
Also, Jon has a good eye for a goal, scoring 10 for Ireland in 38 appearances so far, which means he has to be regarded as one of our most consistent goalscorers. The other thing about him is that he seems always to have an air of confidence, something which can only rub off on his team-mates. There’s no sense that the international stage is too big for him; rather, he seems to relish it.
If he was to miss out, that would be really bad news for Ireland, not just for this game but because I think it might mean he won’t play at all in the tournament. If you come back and train hard but the medical staff reckon you’re still not right, I think that would make it unlikely you could play in the other two games. And if that happens with Jon Walters it would be a real blow for us.
There isn’t an obvious like-for-like replacement for him but, if the worst does happen, it might give a chance for one of the more orthodox wide players — James McClean or Aiden McGeady even — to get in the starting eleven.
In central defence, alongside John O’Shea, I think it’s between Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy, rather than Ciaran Clark. It would be a big call and quite a surprise for Duffy to play — I’d be betting on Keogh — but you never know with Martin; he works in mysterious ways.
For that reason too, I can’t honestly say who I think will play in goal. Probably Darren Randolph but Martin might also be weighing up the big tournament experience of Shay Given and the top form of Keiren Westwood.
In the full-back positions, I’d expect to see Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady. In midfield, there’ll be Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy, perhaps with Quinn also in there to mark Ibrahimovic. If that’s the case, Wes could miss out, and instead the team might be completed by Walters on the right, James McClean on the left, and Shane Long up front.
But, as I said, if Martin doesn’t decide to man-mark Ibra then Hoolahan would probably play in that forward role in midfield.
Whatever way the manager goes about it this evening, I still think there are grounds for Irish optimism in that — Yer Man apart — the Swedes don’t have talent that outstrips ours.
If we play to our very best, we can certainly win this match. But, at all costs, what we mustn’t do is lose it. If that happens, we’re behind the eight ball straight away. I don’t think we can go out just to keep it tight and nullify Ibrahimovic; we’ve got to play as well.
I will be particularly interested to see what the energy levels of the players are like. The preparations seem to have been more laidback compared to four years ago, when there was talk that Giovanni Trapattoni demanded too much of the squad in the build-up. O’Neill seems to be doing the opposite by giving them more time off, and what will be fascinating for me will be to see how all that is reflected in the spirit and energy of the team. If those things are not right, we’re really going to struggle in this group. But if they are right, we’ve got a great chance of progressing as a good third.
Tonight, we’ll also get to see what our next opponents Belgium are really made of. True, they may be up against what I would regard as the weakest Italian team that’s ever gone to a tournament, a side that will really miss Verratti and Marchisio in midfield. And the fact that they’re dependent on Graziano Pelle as the main frontman probably says it all about the deficiencies in Antonio Conte’s side.
But they’re still Italy. They’ll still be hard to beat and they always love stopping teams from scoring. Certainly there’s individual ability in this Belgian team but there’s nothing like an Italian team to stop you showing your ability.
I think there’s every chance that game will end in a draw.
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