'Ibracadabra' fails again to show magic is more than illusion
Ibrahimovic did his best but those who decry his talent will crow a little louder
Saturday 16 June 2012
Keeping Zlatan Ibrahimovic quiet is a challenging enough task in a literal sense let alone on the pitch but England managed to shackle Sweden's star man to earn a vital victory in Group D.
A constant menace but not on the scoresheet, Ibrahimovic did his best to deliver the performance expected of him but ultimately those who decry his talent on the ground of his susceptibility to English teams' resolve will crow a little louder.
In his book entitled Jar Al Zlatan (I am Zlatan), he opined on his miserable time at Barcelona: "Something had happened, nothing serious, not yet, but still. I became quiet and that's lethal, believe me. I have to be angry to play well. I have to scream and shout."
England and their clubs have a similarly debilitating effect on the 30-year-old. Although he scored the winner when the two sides met in Gothenburg eight years ago, he has scored only three times in 1,312 minutes against Premier League sides.
His 45-minute appearance in November's 1-0 defeat at Wembley may as well have been a no-show but the perception of Ibrahimovic in England has always been skewed for a player with 32 goals in 79 games at international level.
In many of those matches he has been deployed as a lone striker but here in Kiev's Olympic Stadium he operated as a second striker behind Johan Elmander.
Sweden are a mirror image of England in a number of ways and just as Wayne Rooney operates at a technical and creative level above his more functional team-mates, Ibrahimovic is the standout act in an otherwise limited side.
But the mood has to take him. Dropping deep to pick up possession, this artisan surveyed the scene before him as if sizing up the canvas on which he was about to deliver his masterful brush strokes.
The weakness in using Ibrahimovic in a deeper position is that his lack of pace is exposed when he has the opportunity to run at defenders, simply because he has more ground to cover in reaching the goal.
A quick early ball from the right released him and a quicker player could have burst clear but instead Glen Johnson was able to recover and snuff out the danger.
Every move Sweden attempted flowed through Ibrahimovic. A sighter from 20 yards forced Joe Hart into a routine save, before another attack saw him cut inside James Milner and again force England's goalkeeper into action.
It was inevitable that Ibrahimovic would be involved in restoring parity following Andy Carroll's thumping first-half header.
They are few players who can rightly claim priority on free-kicks ahead of Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson but Ibrahimovic stepped up following Milner's careless and carded foul and after his first effort hit the wall, his second somehow found Olof Mellberg who beat Hart with some help from Johnson.
It was a fortuitous moment but the Milan forward was stirring himself and Sweden's confidence palpably grew. Mellberg nodded Sweden in front but substitute Theo Walcott counter-punched.
Ibrahimovic threatened to win it with a 20-yard effort that stung Hart's fingertips. But for all his efforts – and his critics had no further evidence here to dismiss him as a lackadaisical luxury – it was another striker on the pitch who provided the game's decisive moment.
Danny Welbeck somehow converted Walcott's cross with an improvised flick the likes of which Ibrahimovic has wowed Europe with before.
Ibrahimovic has one final chance against France to inspire his nation or face an early Euro 2012 exit. It is a trick he is used to being asked to pull off.
However, on this occasion, the man they call 'Ibracadabra' did his best to conjure something from his spell book but England were just about immune.
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