T HE cards will be dealt in the Champions League draw in Nyon this morning but Johan Mjallby was holding three kings yesterday.
The Celtic assistant manager, who was looking at the possible hand that awaits his club after a heroic qualification campaign, was drawn to consideration of the King of Sweden. He was quick to point out this was no reference to King Carl Gustaf or to King Henrik, a certain Mr Larsson who he once played alongside for club and country. Mjallby, rather, was focusing on one of the most dangerous aces that lies in the draw.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 31, has enjoyed a career at clubs that form a personal Champions League. The striker has played for Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona, AC Milan and now is part of an expensively refurbished Paris St-Germain. His combined transfer fees of £170m could bail out the Greek economy.
Mjallby, who played with the striker at international level, is well aware of his countryman's talent and stature. "Zlatan is a superstar, especially in Sweden where there are five or six pages dedicated to him in the newspapers every day. He is probably even bigger than the King in Sweden . . . and I do not mean King Henrik. Henrik is quite big as well but I'd say Zlatan is maybe even trumping him just now."
Ibrahimovic is a serial winner of titles, taking eight consecutive championships though the Eredivisie, La Liga and Serie A. "That speaks volumes for him," said Mjallby, who remembers the forward from the early days of the new century. "I was skipper of Sweden when Zlatan came on the scene. He had to wait for his chance a wee bit because Henrik Larsson and Marcus Allback were our two starting strikers. It did not take Zlatan long until he became a regular. But when we went to the 2002 World Cup, he was on the bench and had to wait for that chance."
The Celtic coach has watched his former team-mate blossom into one of the most spectacular talents in the world game. "You could see straight away when you saw him that he had that bit of something special. He's a special player and you knew he would go all the way. Obviously, he was not world class when I first saw him, but he has improved all the time."
Mjallby noticed a distinct improvement in the striker when Celtic played Ajax and Ibrahimovic was leading the attack. "When he moved from Malmo to Ajax, we played against him [in 2001 in a Champions League qualifier] and we knocked them out. They had a very young side but you could see he was starting to become a very good player. He has improved each year and for the last five years he's probably been one of the game's top-class strikers. It's always hard to say if he's top three or top five or top in the world, but he is a top striker."
Mjallby knows that his friend needs one piece of silver to add to the riches he has garnered from the game. "With the targets he sets for himself, the only thing that is missing is the Champions League. He does not have that in his prize cabinet yet. It is not like he's going to win something with Sweden – no disrespect to Sweden – that's too difficult to do, so the Champions League is something that he's really striving for."
PSG are one of seven possible opponents that await Celtic this morning. The others are Manchester United, Malaga, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke '04. The coach would prefer either Schalke or Malaga but believes Celtic's status as a surprise qualifier could stand the club in good stead. "I think it is easy now and then to be the underdog," he said.
He is very relaxed, too, at the prospect of facing opponents who could command the majority of the ball. In group matches, Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow all enjoyed periods of sustained possession but this does not perturb the Swede. "I think our support accepts we might not have the ball all the time. We didn't know when we started this adventure if we were good enough to play without the ball, because it's different in Europe, a lot of teams are very good at keeping the ball and we have to give up a lot of possession to other teams. When you're not used to it, you don't know."
That test has been passed in qualification but now bigger challenges await. "We didn't really know if we had the capabilities to defend as a team without the ball for long spells but I think we have taken a lot of confidence from the group stages, and we have shown that we can do it," Mjallby said.
Celtic, who garnered 10 points, were dangerous on the counter attack, scoring three goals against Barcelona at home and away and three against Spartak in Moscow. Mjallby is thus encouraged ahead of the draw. "We've reached our first target which was to get through the group," he said. "The last-16 is a great achievement but you never know where it's going to take you."
The first part of that question will be answered today.