Italy focus on Sweden, and last 16 spot

Toulouse (France) (AFP) – Italy coach Antonio Conte has warned against focusing on Swedish danger man Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the Azzurri look to avoid a repeat of their ill-fated 2104 World Cup campaign by beating Euro 2016 Group D rivals Sweden on Friday.

Beaten 2012 finalists Italy will secure their place in the last 16 knockout phase if they beat Sweden in Toulouse to follow their blistering start to the competition with a 2-0 win over Belgium in Lyon.

But Conte said the Italians will not be focusing on Ibrahimovic as they look to end their habit of starting well in finals only to lose their second game.

“Zlatan is so strong that he can play in any league in the world… he is capable of destabilising a whole team,” Chelsea-bound Conte told media in Toulouse on Thursday.

“But it’s not just about him. It’s about Sweden, and they’re a very well organised side.”

After a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland, defeat would leave the Scandinavians needing to beat Belgium, ranked number two in the world, in their last group game to hope of securing one of the four best third-placed group finishes to sneak into the last 16.

But listening to Conte and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon hail Sweden’s talisman, Hamren’s men would be forgiven for believing in a fairytale finish on Friday. 

Buffon has direct experience of Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring wizardry, having conceded a spectacular backheel goal in the 85th minute of a Euro 2004 fixture that finished 1-1. 

“To be honest I don’t remember the goal too much, but it was a real technical gesture,” said Buffon. “At the time Zlatan was just a young player and probably did not know the kind of career that lay ahead of him.

“In the past 12 years he’s shown on more than one occasion how talented he is and he’s managed to repeat that backheel goal three or four times since. It’s become his speciality.”

Italy are looking to bury their habit of starting well in major finals, only to slip up at the second hurdle.

Two years ago in Brazil, Mario Balotelli hit the winner in Manaus as the Azzurri pipped England 2-1, only to fall 1-0 to Costa Rica and exit the tournament following a controversial 1-0 defeat to Uruguay.

Conte was coach of Juventus then, but the 46-year-old Italian remembers it well. He said that in the tight Euro competition, Italy cannot take any team lightly.

“We’re seeing a lot of really balanced games, so every game is difficult,” he said, underlining France’s last-gasp 2-0 win over Balkan minnows Albania on Wednesday.

“France is a good example. They only scored their first goal in the 90th minute and their second in the 95th.”

Buffon said the Azzurri will not dare to assume they have one foot in the knockout phase.

“Historically we’ve had problems in the second game (of a competition), we’re here to fix that,” he said.

“We’ve made a comforting start, in fact we probably didn’t expect it ourselves.

“One of our strengths is we know our limits, we know what we have to give out on the pitch and how to prepare the best way possible for certain games.”

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