Martin O’Neill has admitted Zlatan Ibrahimovic is no longer “over-rated” as he prepares to send the Republic of Ireland into battle with Sweden’s superstar striker.
A decade ago O’Neill, as a television pundit, called Ibrahimovic “the most over-rated player on the planet”, a comment that was quoted to him at his press conference ahead of Ireland’s Group E opener against Sweden tonight.
The 64-year-old said: “Well ten years ago, that might have been the case. Lots of things can happen in that time.
“He’s a top-class player. He’s one of the best in Europe, if not the world. He’s Sweden’s talisman and he will be hard to keep quiet during the course of the game.
“All world-class players, regardless of how well or how closely they are marked, are able to elude things during the course of the game, and he is one of those players.”
Ibrahimovic scored 11 times in Sweden’s qualification campaign and represents a big threat to Ireland’s hopes of a winning start in Saint Denis.
His ability and track record have certainly impressed veteran skipper Robbie Keane.
Asked if he liked the 34-year-old, Keane said: “Yes, of course – how could you not? He’s a top, top player. He’s been doing it for a long, long time and he seems to be getting better and better.
“He scores goals no matter where he’s been, he’s won league titles. He’s certainly someone I respect and admire from a distance.”
Keane is a veteran of the Republic’s Euro 2012 campaign, which saw them return without a point after defeats by Croatia, Spain and Italy.
However, while there is optimism that they can make a bigger impact this time around, the 35-year-old striker insists 2012 has to be put into context.
He said: “We had a great spirit four years ago. We played against three of the best teams at that time.
“We went in thinking we’d got a good chance of getting out of the group. The team spirit has always been high, but as I said, we played against top, top teams, so that’s just the way it goes sometimes.
“Are we ready now? Of course we are, there’s no question about it.
“The lads are excited, everybody is just looking forward now to the games coming around.”
O’Neill hopes Jonathan Walters will shake off an Achilles problem having suffered no ill-effects following his return to training as Ireland look for a first competitive victory over the Swedes at the seventh attempt.
He does not believe the game is a must-win affair despite Belgium and Italy awaiting his side.
He said: “No, I don’t think it’s a must-win. It would be great to get off to a great start, and I’m sure that Sweden are targeting us in the sense that they feel that if they could win this game against us, it gives them a great chance.
“We must feel exactly the same way.”
Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic insists his legend will live on wherever he decides to play after Euro 2016.
The 34-year-old will lead Sweden against the Republic of Ireland with his future undecided following his decision to leave Paris St Germain.
Asked why he intends to extend his career despite all his achievements, he said: “Because the legend can still deliver.”
Ibrahimovic could become the first man to find the back of the net in four successive Euro tournament final stages.
He agreed he had an opportunity to dominate a major tournament for the first time.
He said: “I have been dominating wherever I go, I have no issue about that. I feel very confident.
“I go into this tournament with a strong season behind me. I feel strong and I come here to enjoy.
“I feel like I am getting better and better every year that passes. It’s all about developing and learning things and not being satisfied.
“You have got to have the hunger to become a better player. That’s when I feel I have accomplished something, when I learn new things. I demand of myself that I will work hard on the pitch and practise.
“If you want it, you are able to do it. I know what I want, I know I’m going to do it.”
Ibrahimovic refused to be drawn on talk of a move to Manchester United.
He said: “For me Manchester, there’s nothing to say. I feel happy for the moment. What the future will be, you will know soon and we’ll see what happens.”