Zlatan Ibrahimovic has said Sweden are not as good as when he played for them but will still be a match for Italy in their World Cup qualifying playoff.
Manchester United striker Ibrahimovic retired from international football after Sweden were eliminated from Euro 2016.
He told Sky Sport Italia his retirement had left a void in the national side but added that Sweden may now be “more of a team.”
He said: “When Sweden play now, they don’t play with any pressure.
“When I was playing everybody was expecting us to win the Euros and the World Cup, obviously because that’s the pressure I put myself under and that’s the pressure put on me from outside. It’s something that I like.
“Nowadays, if Sweden win or lose, it’s not like when I played. If I listen to my ego, I have to say that when I played we were better — without me, they are not so good.
“Without Ibrahimovic maybe they are more of a team now but, as I’ve said, the difference is playing with pressure and expectations and playing without — now they started from scratch again, everybody has the chance to prove themselves.
“When I was there, there was a different pressure. The squad was already made with a coach who had been there years. Now they have a new coach, less experience with new players — they’ve started over.”
Sweden host Italy in Solna on Friday before the teams meet in the return at the San Siro on Monday.
The winner gets one of Europe’s four final spots at the World Cup, and Ibrahimovic said the games were “like two finals.”
He warned Sweden to beware of the threat posed by his former Paris Saint-Germain teammate Marco Verratti, adding: “Nobody is better than Verratti, but you’ve got to use him in the right way to get 100 percent out of him.
“I saw him when he arrived at PSG and saw him grow to become one of the best in the world. He needs to be used like he was at Paris, as a defensive central midfielder.”
The playoff evokes memories of Euro 2004, when Sweden and Denmark drew 2-2 in their final group fixture, meaning Italy were eliminated regardless of their result.
The Italians believe the Scandinavian nations agreed the result in advance, playing what is known as a biscotto — a biscuit — translating as a fixed match.
But Ibrahimovic said: “The truth is that we played a normal game and it just ended 2-2.
“That was the result, but it’s not something we agreed on before or during the game because that’s not my mentality, and anyone who knows me knows this.
“After the game there was bound to be criticism, but this was just to pin the blame on somebody and find excuses for being knocked out.”
Ibrahimovic was asked whether he would consider coming out of retirement should Sweden make it to the World Cup and said: “I’m just thinking of getting back onto the field and playing again — what happens in the future we’ll see, but I think I’ve done my time with the national team.
“Maybe I could have done more or less, but it’s history now. In any case, it would be really nice to see Sweden at the World Cup.”
Italy duo Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi both said they were relieved that Ibrahimovic would not be playing against them.
“I’m happy to avoid him in a game like this,” Juventus defender Chiellini told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“Having said that, we’ve still got to watch out for this Sweden side. They play a 4-4-2 to perfection, with tight lines that you couldn’t even draw as straight as they are. It’s going to be 50-50.”
Roma midfielder De Rossi told a news conference: “I wouldn’t like to have him in opposition even if he were 40 and playing with a broken leg.
“I’d love to play in my fourth World Cup. It’s something that nobody wants to miss.
“We’ve got two games that we can’t get wrong. The stakes are so high that talking of sweat and blood is right because we’ve got to give everything to the point of exhaustion.”
Ben Gladwell reports on Serie A, the Italian national team and the Bundesliga for ESPN FC, UEFA and the Press Association. @UEFAcomBenG.