Ibrahimovic spurred to prove point for Milan
The Milan striker has flattered to deceive against English clubs in the Champions League. Sam Wallace asks if the real Swede will stand up tonight
Tuesday 15 February 2011
It is that time of the year again when English football encounters Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Champions League knock-out stages and asks the same question: are we going to see what all the fuss is about?
In fairness to Ibrahimovic he scored both goals against Arsenal in Barcelona's 2-2 draw at the Emirates last season but more often than not the Swedish striker has started games against English opponents with a big reputation and ended with that reputation diminished. With his physique and goalscoring record he should be a natural fit for one of England's top clubs yet no one has ever been tempted enough to pay the big transfer fee and wages he would command.
Not so, said Ibrahimovic yesterday when he was asked whether he was close to joining Roberto Mancini, his former coach at Internazionale, at Manchester City in the summer. Ibrahimovic described it as a "couple of talks" with City when Barcelona made him available in the summer before he eventually decided the old money of Milan was a better bet than City and their boundless ambition.
While Ibrahimovic sought to balance his judgement of City with plenty of praise for their season, he did not try to hide the fact that he thought that the high-profile players who have joined English football's richest club had done so primarily for the money.
"City had a fantastic project going on but I'm not one of those players who wants to go there and play for money," Ibrahimovic said. "For me, it's important to see what kind of future there is, what kind of possibilities there is. For me, the project of City is not now. I think in a couple of years they will [become a] top team but Milan now is at the top.
"I want to be playing at the top when I'm 29 rather than 32. City have made some good investments and are playing well. The trainer [Mancini] I know well from Inter and he is doing fantastic at City. They are one of the top teams around but it was not about money. If you are a great player there is money everywhere."
Despite his best efforts, Ibrahimovic carried on digging the hole when asked about his fellow Milan striker Robinho and his experience at City. "He went to City when they were not as good as they were today," Ibrahimovic said. "If they had the same team now when he went there it would've been a different story.
"He took the challenge and he has to be proud of that. He made the move from Real Madrid to Manchester City and in some peoples' eyes that is not a step up, it is a step down but City now, they have made big investment and they have brought in fantastic players."
With the swagger and the reputation for having a not inconsiderable ego, it has been hard to square the fact that Ibrahimovic has faced English clubs eight times in the Champions League and only has those two goals against Arsenal. His record is relatively poor, going back to Juventus' defeat to Liverpool in April 2005 when he failed to score at Anfield.
After that he faced Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United twice apiece for Juventus and Inter and did not score once before the game against Arsenal last season in which he scored twice. Against United in Inter's decisive second-leg defeat at Old Trafford in March 2009 he was excellent in the first half and hit the bar with a header but faded badly after the break.
Asked about his relatively poor goalscoring record against English opposition, Ibrahimovic's response yesterday was brief and to the point. "I always try to score – the most important thing is to win the game."
Once again tonight the stage is set for Ibrahimovic who has established himself as the main man in a Milan team that is top of Serie A but without many of their key players. While San Siro is not likely to be full, Ibrahimovic's observation that Tottenham and Arsenal are "now on the same level" demonstrated that they do not underestimate tonight's opposition.
With 18 goals this season, Ibrahimovic has seen off Ronaldinho and is ahead of Robinho and Alexandre Pato, who may not even play tonight. "He's one of the best strikers in the world," William Gallas said of Ibrahimovic yesterday. "I have played against him before. He's not easy to mark."
Ironically, Ibrahimovic's best performance against an English club – those two goals against Arsenal last season – came when he was at Barcelona, who probably valued his contribution less than any of the three Italian sides he has played for. The Italians do not have many doubts about Ibrahimovic; he has played for their three most-celebrated clubs and consistently scored goals in Italian football.
The overhead kick he scored against Fiorentina in November is regarded as one of the best goals in Serie A this season. The week previous to that game he scored the only goal in the Milan derby which sealed his standing with the Milan supporters.
"I feel at home here," Ibrahimovic said. "I had a good experience with Inter here and now I'm back after one year in Spain where I learnt a lot on and off the pitch. I am 29 years old now. The next important thing is to be happy and when you go out on the field to enjoy football. Now I just want to enjoy winning titles and be happy. I don't know how many more years I will play."
It was not the same at Barcelona for whom he was a record ¤66m (£56m) signing in 2009 and then disposed of after one season as he did not fit in with the system that Pep Guardiola wanted to play. This season David Villa attacks from the left allowing Lionel Messi to operate down the centre where Ibrahimovich used to be.
For Milan this year he has been the central figure in Massimiliano Allegri's team in much the same way as he was the key man for Mourinho when he came to Internazionale. When Milan signed Antonio Cassano from Sampdoria in the January transfer window there was much debate about whether these two monumental egos could work together but the early signs are that they have a decent understanding.
Cassano is not eligible to play tonight and there are others missing from Milan too including new signing Mark van Bommel, also ineligible, Andrea Pirlo and Kevin-Prince Boateng. All of which will increase the focus on Ibrahimovic although the centre-forward hasn't scored for three games now.
It ended badly for him at Barcelona and it is difficult to regard a move away from the champions of Spain as anything but a move down the football hierarchy. At 29, he is approaching the end of his career but he remains one of Europe's leading strikers. He has won the league title four years in a row at Inter and Barcelona and is on target to make it five this season.
Yet he has never won the Champions League and despite the historical pedigree of Milan it is hard to see him doing it this year. Asked yesterday whether it was the team that Ibrahimovic played in that made him so effective, Allegri disagreed. "He is an extraordinary player and that's why he scores goals," the Milan coach said. Perhaps, as far as English opposition is concerned, tonight is the night.
Five years, three clubs, very nearly five titles
2009-10: Champions (99pts, 3pts ahead of Real Madrid)
2008-09: Champions (84pts, 10pts ahead of Milan)
2007-08: Champions (85pts, 3pts ahead of Roma)
2006-07: Champions (97pts, 22pts ahead of Roma)
(2005-06): Finished first in Serie A but the title was taken away from the side after the Calciopoli scandal. Juventus were relegated to Serie B and Milan had 30 points deducted from them, which saw Ibrahimovic's soon-to-be-new club, Internazionale, promoted to first place and the title.
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