Euro 2016

Italians face Zlatan test

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will again be spearheading Sweden's attack against Group E pace-setters Italy, who will hope to muzzle the mercurial forward.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will again be spearheading Sweden's attack against Group E pace-setters Italy, who will hope to muzzle the mercurial forward.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Team ethic of Conte's men will be pitted against Swede stand-out's striking talent

GROUP E

Italy v Sweden

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TOULOUSE • Italy's opening Group E victory over Belgium was celebrated as a triumph of the collective over individual talents, but today's opponents Sweden are relying on the singular genius of front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic to get their campaign off the ground.

2012 runners-up Italy had last won their opening match at a European Championship in 2000 - when they went on to reach the final too - and having started strongly, Antonio Conte's side are being talked of as contenders once again.

While Italy's talent pool is regarded as one of their weakest in years, the players make up for their lack of star power with tactical nous, a flexibility of approach and an honest work ethic which proved too much for Belgium, who were beaten 2-0.

This is in stark contrast to Sweden's supposed one-man band, which relies on the undoubted pedigree of Ibrahimovic, the country's all-time leading scorer.

"Maybe we're not who people said we were before the European Championship," Italian midfielder Alessandro Florenzi said. "Many are eating their words. We're focusing on the facts and leaving the talking to others."

FRIGHTENING ABILITY

Ibrahimovic is the best forward since Ronaldo. We are a little bit scared of his power and his talent.

DANIELE DE ROSSI, Italy midfielder, on the much-vaunted qualities of Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The tireless running of wide men Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini against Belgium typified Italy's spirit of self sacrifice and seemed to be a world away from Ibrahimovic's trademark shrugs, when passes failed to find him during Sweden's disappointing 1-1 draw with Ireland.

The Swede striker failed to sparkle despite playing a decisive role in Ciaran Clark's late own goal.

However, memories of Ibrahimovic's dazzling back- heeled volley against Italy in their Euro 2004 draw - not to mention his seven seasons terrorising Italian Serie A defences - and recollections of the 2014 World Cup, when the Azzurri fell at the first hurdle despite beating England in their opener, will prevent complacency.

"Ibrahimovic is the best forward since Ronaldo," said Italy midfielder Daniele de Rossi. "We are a little bit scared of his power and his talent. However, we can beat (Sweden) the same way that we beat Belgium - with organisation and by hard work on the training field."

A defeat would leave Sweden needing to beat Belgium in their last group game, and hope they get among the four best third-placed group finishers to sneak into the last 16.

Sweden coach Erik Hamren is already doubtful. "Even though we managed to come back and equalise, I am disappointed. We will need to play at 300 per cent to get through," he said after their draw.

Italy's collective looks set to be weakened, however, with Italian media reporting that Manchester United full-back Matteo Darmian is injured, while Graziano Pelle, whose goal sealed the win against Belgium, missed training on Wednesday amid fitness concerns.

Yet regardless of the personnel, Italy will again keep faith in their team ethic, while Sweden need Ibrahimovic to start living up to his billing to boost their hopes of Euro 2016 success.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'Italians face Zlatan test'. Print Edition | Subscribe