STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic has forged his reputation on spectacular goalscoring feats but his former Sweden team mate Jonas Olsson believes the striker’s success is built as much on physical strength as technique.
Olsson, who regularly faced the daunting task of marking Ibra when training with the national team, is looking forward to watching Zlatan in United clash with Chelsea and their own in-form striker, Diego Costa, at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The former West Bromwich Albion defender said 35-year-old Zlatan’s success in the Premier League has come as no surprise.
“As a defender in England you can often be very physical, but he’s probably the strongest player physically that you’d meet,” Olsson told Reuters in an interview.
“Even when you feel you have a metre or can get in tight, he’s strong enough to deal with it -- what’s he scored this year, 16, 17 goals? And all the assists he’s made? He is so smart as a player.”
Ibrahimovic and Brazilian-born Spain international Costa have each scored 17 league goals so far this season.
Olsson, 34, ended a nine-year spell at West Brom in March, when his contract was terminated by mutual consent, to join Djurgarden in Stockholm where he teams up with fellow former internationals Kim Kallstrom and goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.
Midfielder Kallstrom clashed on several occasions with Ibra when representing Sweden, but Olsson said the striker is still popular among his fellow players, despite his all-consuming desire to win.
“As a person, he has an attitude and a winning mentality that very few people have, which means that he brings his team mates with him. He’s a person who is a natural leader, that everyone follows,” said Olsson.
“He is cocky in a winning way -- he always backs it up with his play. He has been criticised (in England) previously, but now he’s selling the league on his own - everyone loves him.”
The combative Olsson, never one to back down from a challenge, has been impressed by league leaders Chelsea, who are seven points ahead of Tottenham Hotspur in the title race while United are fifth and battling for a top-four finish.
“Chelsea have maybe a better breadth in their squad -- offensively they have (Victor) Moses, Costa, (Eden) Hazard, Willian. United are probably a bit too dependent on Zlatan.”
Olsson counts Costa as one of the toughest strikers he faced in his 253 appearances for the Baggies.
“Costa has grown this year, in my opinion. Last season he was a little out of balance. Costa can give and take, but this year he has been channelling his energy better,” said Olsson.
“There’s never a problem (between us) before or after a game -- he can be bad-tempered, but I can be a bit bad-tempered myself,” the affable Swede said with a chuckle.
Regarding his own career, Olsson felt he still had more to give at West Brom but the arrival of Jonny Evans from Manchester United had limited him to a handful of appearances this season so he decided it was time to move on and he has no regrets.
“Stockholm felt right. The excitement around the Allsvenskan (Swedish top flight), the quality of players, many younger ones coming through. It’s fun to be a part of this league,” he said.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris