- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

BORDEAUX, France (AP) - Zlatan Ibrahimovic is getting ready to meet some old Italian friends.

The flamboyant striker, who spent several years in Serie A, will again be the focus of much of the attention when Sweden faces Italy on Friday at the European Championship.

Ibrahimovic played with Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini at Juventus, and with Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio at AC Milan. Italy midfielder Thiago Motta and reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu were also teammates with Ibrahimovic at Paris Saint-Germain.

Now, they will be tasked with stopping him.

Ireland managed to stifle Ibrahimovic for most of Monday’s 1-1 draw, but they couldn’t prevent the Sweden captain from rescuing his team in the second half. The Swedes trailed until the 71st minute, when Ibrahimovic sent a teasing ball across the goalmouth that Ireland defender Ciaran Clark stooped to head into his own net.

“I think we can even beat Italy,” Ibrahimovic said. “To do so, however, we definitely have to improve.”

With a goal against the Italians, Ibrahimovic will be become the first player to score in four different European Championships. The 34-year-old Swede is also only three goals away from equaling Michel Platini’s record of nine tournament goals.

But on Friday, he will be facing an Italy side with one of the best defenses in the world.

Not only do the Azzurri have Buffon in goal, but he stands behind Juventus teammates Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Chiellini, who reached a combined 200 appearances for the Italian national team against Belgium.

They were key to Italy’s surprise 2-0 win over the Belgians, managing to keep in check the world’s second-ranked team famous for its attacking flare.

Italy, whose aging team was written off by critics and described as one of the worst ever by the media back home, leads Group E.

“We haven’t done anything yet, but we hope to get to where these lads deserve,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said. “The first step is to reach the last 16, but dreaming helps you achieve something extraordinary.”

The Azzurri team is noticeably devoid of standout players, but what it lacks in star quality, it makes up for in team effort.

“The lads are fantastic because they train and day after day they show that they share important values,” Italian soccer federation president Carlo Tavecchio said. “There’s a long way to go but I believe that a lot of people will start believing in us again after all the negative talk before kick-off.”

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