Belgium coach Marc Wilmots has warned his players to beware Zlatan Ibrahimovic as they attempt to book their place in the last 16 of the Euro 2016 finals.
The Belgians face Sweden in their final Group E game in Nice on Wednesday night knowing a point will be enough to ensure their passage even if the Republic of Ireland pull off a shock victory against leaders Italy.
However, Wilmots, whose side beat Ireland 3-0 in Bordeaux on Saturday to erase their disappointment at losing 2-0 to the Italians in their opening fixture, knows Ibrahimovic – who has made little impact at Euro 2016 so far – could still have a major say in their fate.
Asked about the Sweden game, he said: “They drew a game where it was a game of two halves – Sweden and Ireland both dominated one half. Italy scored towards the end of the game, so that means that they are also very solid.
“We played against them two years ago at the World Cup and they were a very combative team.
“They have got a great player up front, Zlatan – he can score from a deflection, from a free-kick, from anything and I respect Zlatan very much.”
The Belgian camp had been engulfed by negativity after the team ranked second in the world by FIFA succumbed tamely to Italy, with both Wilmots and some of his players coming in for stern criticism.
He had hinted he might drop the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne for the clash with Ireland, although later admitted he had been bluffing after seeing the Everton striker score twice and the Manchester City midfielder turn in a fine individual display.
Lukaku’s goals both came at the end of rapid counter-attacking moves, although Wilmots denied suggestions his team has become one which looks only to hit the opposition on the break.
He said: “I don’t think we are a counter-attacking team. I think we are a team which can play the necessary style.
“When we played against Italy, we pushed between the 70th minute and the 90th minute, so we play how we need to play. The problem is that you can sometimes leave space when you do that.
“When we were winning 1-0, we know we have got some very good weapons. We were not going to play defensively against them, otherwise you would be sacking me all over again.”
Wilmots’ decision to played Axel Witsel, who scored his side’s other goal in the win over Ireland in between Lukaku’s efforts, as a defensive midfielder against Italy was one which attracted particular criticism.
The Zenit St Petersburg player was used in a more advanced role against the Republic and both he and his team reaped the rewards.
Witsel said: “Against Italy, I was playing just in front of the defence as a number six; today I was playing a little bit more like I play for my club.
“Criticism is part of football. We have accepted the criticism this week. We were ready for this game and we know how quickly things change in football, so we always need to be ready and we have to have the mentality we had today for future matches.”