Martin O'Neill hopeful Zlatan Ibrahimovic comments don't come back to bite Ireland
TEN years ago, Martin O'Neill called Zlatan Ibrahimovic "the most over-rated player in the game."
That was during life as a TV pundit.
This evening, as a manager, he must figure out how to stop Sweden's star from ruining his dream night as Irish team boss at Euro 2016.
Playing at the Stade de France in a major finals was the carrot that led O'Neill to take on the Irish job.
It was something he wanted to accomplish.
He wanted to get the Boys in Green to the finals.
Now, the competitor in the Derryman wants to get to the Round of 16.
That journey would take a great leap forward if his team could win three points tonight in front of what is expected to be more than 40,000 Irish supporters.
And standing in O’Neill’s way is the giant figure of that 'over-rated' Ibrahimovic.
"I might well have been right 10 years ago," he chuckles, "but players can improve over a decade you know," added O’Neill.
"Anyway, after I said that Henrik Larsson and Johan Mjallby (both Swedish internationals) told me at Celtic that Zlatan was a very fine player.
"I was prepared to believe them and they were right in the long run.
"And we know what he has achieved in the game since."
But for all the big man's goals and thunderous performances, such as his efforts in the two legs of Sweden's own Euros play-off against Denmark, the Irish manager will not, in his own words, "get fixated about Ibrahimovic."
"Sweden won't do that, and we won't either. He's a very talented player who could cause us problems during the game and we have to deal with that.
"Obviously Zlatan is Sweden's talisman and a significant figure for them.
"He's a very fine player who galvanises the team but they have a number of other players in their side that are very good."
One of them is winger Emil Forsberg, who caught O'Neill's eye when he watched Sweden beat Wales 3-0 in a pre-tournament friendly last Sunday.
"They had a lot of players in action in Stockholm that I expect to be picked for them tomorrow, so it was a worthwhile exercise to go and see them all," O'Neill continued.
"Even if the fact that Wales made a lot of changes took some of the sting out of the game.
"Forsberg plays for Leipzig who are now in the Bundesliga, and was excellent against Wales.
"Ibrahimovic and Forsberg did work well together," O'Neill continued.
"What happens is that Ibra is very strong, the Swedish players feed off him, he can make things happens for them.
"He can turn and slide players through with little passes but he has a good understanding with a number of players, not just that young lad.
"Whoever plays, it is going to be a difficult game for us but it is going to be difficult for them as well."
To make it hard for Zlatan and Co, O'Neill has to get his centre-back pairing spot on, and it is one area of the Irish team that is not settled.
Suspension and injuries meant John O'Shea didn't start either leg of the play-offs against Bosnia last November.
Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark stepped into the breach and did very well in those two huge games.
Then the situation became clouded again when Blackburn Rovers' Shane Duffy produced a brace of fine displays in friendlies against Switzerland and Holland to force his way into picture for a starting shirt in France.
Crucially too, while Duffy lacks experience with just three Irish caps, that is offset by the physique he brings to the Ireland team, being just the man with the height and heft to fend off Ibrahimovic.
And, going on attack, Duffy is also a tempting target for Robbie Brady when he is swinging in those wicked set-pieces.
But O'Neill was giving nothing away about the two names he will stick down on the team-sheet when UEFA require them at 4pm Irish time today.
"The centre-half pairing that we had for the two Bosnian games did very well, in fact make that excellent," added O’Neill.
"John O'Shea is now back and he's got all that experience and he's a good leader in the team.
"Then young Duffy has come in and done well. I will make up my mind soon on who plays there."
But one thing is certain – the pair chosen will have to have big games against Sweden or else we're done for, with Ibrahimovic roaming in the Irish penalty area for 90 minutes tonight.
With a new two-year contract for himself and his backroom team nailed down, O'Neill comes into this tournament in a position of strength.
He has cleaned up the mess that Giovanni Trapattoni left behind in 2013 and even dished out a few debut caps at a time when young Irish talent is thin on the ground in the English Leagues.
O'Neill has already taken in an interest in the future of players like Jack Byrne and Callum O'Dowda.
They are serious young talents that might have a say in whether Ireland get to Russia for the World Cup in two years' time.
They, and more like them, will be needed if Ireland are to stay competitive while losing the likes of Shay Given, Robbie Keane and O'Shea from the group.
Their futures may well be settled by what happens over the next fortnight.
But for now, as the adventure starts, the manager is nothing except positive.
"This is what I set out to do – to qualify. We've done it now, so we can go ahead and deal with doing our best in which is the second biggest competition in world football.
"We're ready for it!"