THE words left a bigger impression than the tackle which preceded them. “I came up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic when we played Sweden. He left one on me,” says Jonny Evans in Part Two of The Big Interview with the Northern Ireland defender.
“I cleared the ball and he left his studs up – I thought I would try and make the most of it. He came over and was all like: ‘Get up, bitch.’ I thought I’d better get up!”
It was a revealing quip, a momentary interaction which exposed the ruthlessness of the talismanic Swede. Jonny is a formidable footballer himself – he has played in the Premier League, Champions League and European Championships – and has rubbed shoulders with the some of football’s elite goalscorers.
He can claim to have got the measure of most of them. Evans’ Northern Ireland side won that encounter with Sweden 2-1.
Jonny would face Ibrahimovic again two years later, when Internazionale hosted Manchester United in the Champions League. The defender helped his side to record a clean sheet in Milan but was reacquainted with the combination of strength and skill which makes Ibrahimovic such a formidable opponent.
“I remember playing against him for Manchester United. I just remember the strength he had – he could put one arm out and hold me off – and I could see the skill he had,” Jonny says in the podcast.
He was faced with a combination of physical power and technical skill when he made his league debut for United, too. He started that day at Stamford Bridge and ended the game defending manfully against Didier Drogba. Jonny recalls how encounters with the Chelsea forward were especially challenging, since Drogba possessed a turn of pace which is uncommon among more imposing strikers.
“Sometimes when you come up against a really strong centre forward who doesn’t really have a lot of pace, you can play a high line,” Jonny says in the podcast. “By squeezing the space in front, you can stop the ball coming to his chest or prevent him from dictating the play by winning headers if they are playing long balls.
“But Drogba had a little bit of everything – he had the pace and the strength and the technique all in one, as well as having the unpredictability of taking long-range shots. So the important thing was always to try and be ahead of him in your brain. I could never compete with him physically, so I had to try and be quicker than him in my brain. I always thought I did quite well against him.”
Speed of thought is also a requirement when playing against Thomas Muller, if only to come up with witty rejoinders to the forward’s relentless jokes.
Jonny was deployed at left-back when his Northern Ireland side faced Die Mannschaft during the group stage of Euro 2016, with head coach Michael O’Neill asking the West Brom man to play against Muller directly. Jonny discovered during the game that the German jester is an irrepressible character – as well as a very serious talent.
“I played against Muller in the Euros,” Jonny says of the Bayern Munich forward. “It was one of the biggest games in my career, but in the tunnel before the game I could tell that he wanted to chat to the lads. He wanted to have a laugh. We were all in the zone, trying to get ready, and he was all: ‘All right, guys!” I ended up chatting to him during the game about a few things.
“But, on the pitch, I have never experienced movement like it – every time the ball went wide and a cross came in, he seemed to get on the end of it. I’ve never marked someone with movement as good as his.”