Ibrahimovic must inspire ageing Sweden to make an impression on Euro 2016
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | March 4, 2016
Although it goes against the grain to describe any football team as one-trick ponies, Sweden might be something of an exception.
Sweden are Zlatan
Star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 11 of their 19 goals in Euro 2016 qualifying, including three strikes in the play-offs, yet Coral make the PSG poacher a 22/1 chance to be tournament leading marksman at the finals in France this summer.
Were he still part of a roster that contains modern era Swedish soccer legends like Henrik Larsson, Fredrik Ljungberg and Anders Svensson, then Ibra would be a different price.
Although he seems to get better with age, 34-year-old Zlatan will have to go to the well one more time and turn it on if the Swedes are to avoid a group stage exit for a third consecutive European Championship.
Age before beauty
Euro 2016 looks to be something of a watershed for the sole Scandinavian representatives at the tournament, though Nordic neighbours Iceland also qualified. While that region is well-known for producing sporting longevity, this is the end for both head coach Erik Hamren and the bulk of his roster.
Ibrahimovic’s fellow 30-somethings are all over the Sweden setup. Start in goal with Andreas Isaksson and then among his defenders with Mikael Antonsson, one-time Wigan Athletic man Andreas Granqvist, Per Nilsson, West Bromwich Albion’s Jonas Olsson and Oscar Wendt.
Full backs Mikael Lustig (Celtic) and Martin Olsson (Norwich City) are thus relatively young with both in their late-20s. In midfield, this theme continues with left-footer Kim Kallstrom and Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson joining Turkey-born Erkan Zengin.
Deep-lying Pontus Wernbloom and Black Cats loanee Ola Toivonen both reach 30 during Euro 2016, while striking alternative Marcus Berge reaches the milestone in August.
The generation game
Last summer, Sweden’s Under-21 team became European champions, yet very few of that roster have managed to establish themselves in the senior setup.
There is, then, a generation gap of sorts about the Swedish. Looking to belie their relative youth are centre back Alexander Milosevic (24), midfield duo Oscar Lewicki and Oscar Hiljemark (both 23), winger Emil Forsberg (24), and a couple of forwards who have big boots to fill.
John Guidetti promised so much during spells with Feyenoord and Celtic while on Manchester City’s books, but has had to rebuild his career in Spain with provincial Galician fortress Celta Vigo. He’s yet to score in five senior Swedish caps.
Bordeaux’s Isaac Kiese Thelin, none in seven international outings, is very much deep in the shade cast by Ibrahimovic which emanates from the Parisian capital. Thelin’s transfer to Ligue 1 is yet to work out, but his chances under Willy Sagnol have been limited.
While Berg has been prolific for Panathinaikos in Greece, his return of a goal every four games for Sweden is not sufficient to make him a credible candidate either.
Toivonen, meanwhile, has flopped badly at the Stadium of Light with his arrival meant to herald a solution to linking midfield and attack. The burden really is squarely on the sizeable 6ft 5in shoulders of Zlatan when it comes to Sweden.
Olympiakos winger Jimmy Durmaz provides some light relief, chipping in with the odd goal from the flank alongside fellow wide outlet Erkan Zengin.
Where will Swedes run stop?
Drawn in a Euro 2016 finals pool, Group E, alongside Belgium, Italy and the Republic of Ireland, Sweden’s stage of elimination market makes for grim reading.
They’re odds-on at 10/11 to bow out during the group stage, but this Euros is in an expanded format with an extra knockout round. If Ibrahimovic can inspire them to be among the best third-placed nations, then taking the 7/4 on offer for them to be eliminated in the last 16 looks tempting.
Although he’s never scored a World Cup finals goal, this looks like being a last hurrah for Zlatan and, beyond the Euros, he may be bound for an exciting club future in the Premier League despite his advancing years.