Will Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fading legs and enduring genius get one more chance on the biggest stage?

The Swede is being offered as a short-term signing to some of Europe's biggest clubs

Ed Malyon@eaamalyon
Wednesday 31 October 2018 21:05
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LA Galaxy announce Zlatan deal

In some ways, it feels like Zlatan Ibrahimovic never went away.

And yet, he really did. Almost as far as it is possible to travel from mainland Europe and play football while remaining a weekly, perhaps fortnightly, talking point in the news back home, taking on the world’s elite leagues that throw up constant storylines and still managing to make headlines and extend a career that has been lived through the media into his 38th year, almost two decades at the top.

Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres are plying their trade in Japan these days - World Cup winners who have done it all - but it is rare to see or hear much about their exploits. Zlatan, however, may be in Los Angeles but he always seems to find a way to lob, somersault or taekwondo kick his way back into the headlines, the publicity feeding him like a life force.

Ibrahimovic has always been an interesting player for his unique playing style and irrepressible self-belief but with the legend of his greatness he has always carried the footballing reputation of being a bit of a flat-track bully rather than a player who leads teams to glory. His lack of Champions League titles but abundance of league-winners medals is often cited as proof of a man who can and will destroy weaker opponents single-handedly on occasion but one whose mercurial nature also begets an unreliability. The fact that he's the only player to represent seven teams in the Champions League - Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United - is remarkable but not as remarkable as being a player who represented all those clubs and never won the trophy itself.

His legendary ego - one that allowed him to take on Pep Guardiola in his own backyard and refuse a trial at Arsenal because ‘Zlatan doesn’t do auditions’ - needs feeding, and while American soccer circles adore the Swedish forward as if he were the second coming of Christ - an interesting angle considering his frequent self-deification - there is an unavoidable feeling that Ibrahimovic, and his agent, have an itch that needs scratching.

Which is why many well-connected people within the world of football believe that Zlatan will be enjoying one final hurrah in Europe from January, a man in search of a last pop at the Champions League and a return to the flashbulbs and adulation of another high-profile unveiling.

Indeed, Antonio Conte was so close to taking over at Real Madrid earlier this week that Mino Raiola is understood to have made contact with the Italian about his thoughts on taking Zlatan on loan, a deal which had already been offered to the club itself separately. Should Madrid ultimately decline, there will be others ready to take the plunge.

Ibrahimovic's late Man United career was ruined by a serious knee injury

A move in the winter window is made easier by the fact that he hasn’t got playoff football to worry about now. Wayne Rooney’s impact at DC United has been almost exclusively measured by the way he lifted them from the foot of the standings and into the post-season with time to spare, a remarkable achievement and one that suggests he might have had more to offer before setting sail for the States. For his part, Rooney is unlikely to seek more football in Europe this winter, content to have a family Christmas for the first time in over a decade, but for Zlatan, missing out on the playoffs only worsens the competitive itch.

That Galaxy didn’t reach the business end of the season has little to do with the veteran forward, who at 37 could legitimately have been crowned the league’s best player. 22 goals and six assists in 29 games mark him out as a cut above pretty much everybody else plying their trade Stateside, but he was let down by a poorly-managed side whose defence, the highest paid in the league, couldn’t keep clean sheets.

Zlatan performed well in a poor LA Galaxy side

And being in Los Angeles has, perhaps, made him realise his place in the world. While Ibrahimovic has been a showstopping superstar across Europe's elite leagues for some time now, in Los Angeles he is not even close to being in the top 10 biggest names. A cameo back in the old continent might be the comforting bear hug that his ego needs.

Ibrahimovic’s eligibility to play in the Champions League is a key string to his bow in negotiations with top European clubs looking for a mid-season spark, some proven quality with well-known limitations but a player who can be trusted on a big stage not to freeze.

Whether it is Real Madrid, almost a perfect personality fit for the Swede, or another club who takes the plunge on Ibrahimovic, it’s likely to be his last hurrah in Europe. With that in mind, and the guaranteed entertainment and drama he brings, Zlatan will be welcomed back for one final time by all those who embrace his fine blend of lunacy and talent.

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