By Ed Dove
TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) – Italy’s victory over Belgium was celebrated as a triumph of the team over individual talents, but Friday’s opponents Sweden are relying on the singular genius of frontman Zlatan Ibrahimovic to get their Euro 2016 campaign off the ground.
Italy had last won their opening match at a European Championship in 2000 — when they went on to reach the final — and having started strongly, Antonio Conte’s side are being talked of as contenders once again.
While Italy’s team is regarded as one of their weakest in years, they 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 in their opening Group E clash.
This is in stark contrast to Sweden’s supposed one-man band, which relies on the undoubted pedigree of Ibrahimovic, his country’s all-time leading scorer.
“Maybe we’re not who people said we were before the European Championship,” midfielder Alessandro Florenzi told reporters.
“Many are eating their words,” he added. “We’re focusing on the facts and leaving the talking to others.”
The tireless running of widemen Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini against Belgium typified Italy’s spirit of self sacrifice and seemed a world away from Ibrahimovic’s trademark shrugs when passes failed to find him in Sweden’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Ireland.
However, memories of Ibrahimovic’s dazzling back-heeled volley against Italy at Euro 2004 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 a great player, he’d be a threat to any team,” midfielder Antonio Candreva told reporters.
“Ibrahimovic is the best forward since (Marco) Van Basten, except for Ronaldo,” added 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 organization and by hard work on the training field.”
Italy’s collective looks set to be weakened, however, with Italian media reporting that Matteo Darmian is injured, while forward Graziano Pelle missed training on Wednesday amid fitness concerns. De Rossi’s condition is also being monitored.
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.
(Editing by Toby Davis)