Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Chelsea babies need to man up
If, as managers such as Jose Mourinho believe, the game starts with the pre-match press conference then it was an early goal for Paris St-Germain, scored by one of his disciples, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic struck at Stamford Bridge ahead of the last-16 Champions League second-leg tie against Chelsea.
Not that Ibrahimovic is anyone’s disciple, of course, as he delivered a withering put-down of Chelsea’s immature players, told the world that, at 34, he was better than ever – and that his career was “only warming up” – and declared that his “relationship” with English football became “perfect” after the four goals he put past England in Sweden’s friendly in 2012.
Whether Ibrahimovic plays in the Premier League next season, with just “two months” left on his PSG contract, remains unlikely despite the striker dangling the possibility in his comments after scoring in the first leg of this tie that the French champions won 2-1.
First the put-down. Ibrahimovic denied he was out for “revenge” after being harshly sent off here last season, following a first-half challenge on Oscar, which provoked the Chelsea players to demand his dismissal. Nevertheless, the 10-men of PSG progressed to the quarter-finals on away goals, after extra time, with Ibrahimovic later labelling the Chelsea players “babies”.
Asked whether he expected Chelsea to act like “men” this time, Ibrahimovic was dismissive. “Let’s see,” he said. “The last game we played they were no indications of that. In that situation, from the last game here, I’d never seen anything like that before … from mature players like that, I didn’t expect it. But it’s a new game now. Let’s play it differently. “I never think about revenge. Hopefully, I will stay on the pitch longer than the last time, to have the possibility to do things I’m good at. Play football.”
So that is what he said publicly. Privately it is known that Ibrahimovic is highly motivated, in what could be his last game in England, which is why he agreed to be PSG’s designated player to perform media duties ahead of this tie.
It was after last season’s contest that PSG appeared to believe Ibrahimovic’s time at the club was drawing to a close. But his value has increased with his form this season and also ambitious PSG concluding that he is – for now – their main man. “It’s not the end,” Ibrahimovic said. “I’m only warming up. I don’t believe it’s [close to] the end of my career. Age is something you can’t fear, it’s just a number, and the difference is how you feel. I feel young. I’ve never had better statistics than those from this season. This is the best I’ve had in that sense.”
It is a curiosity of Ibrahimovic’s career that despite the league titles – he will win his 13th this season – and a stellar career at Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, and Barcelona that he has not yet won the Champions League. “When I was young and talking about the Champions League, yes, it was almost an obsession,” Ibrahimovic said. “But then I started to mature and get to know myself, which is difficult to understand, but I realised if I win it then it doesn’t make me a better player, or, if I don’t. It won’t make me a worse player.
“I am what I am. If I win it I’ll be very happy. I’ve been lucky enough to win a lot of trophies, at a lot of fantastic clubs and with a lot of fantastic players. Without them you don’t win trophies. I have a chance this season to do it, but it will not change the player I am. That is the difference.”
It irked him that his profile and status in England was debated – a question that went away, he said, after those goals against Roy Hodgson’s side in Stockholm just over three years ago, including that spectacular 30-yard bicycle kick that beat Joe Hart, defied geometry and claimed his fourth.
“My relationship with English football?” Ibrahimovic said. “After my four goals my relationship with England became perfect. Before that, there was no relationship. I have another two months with PSG, and then the Euros with my national team. What happens after that? I’m not in discussions with anybody. The future looks good after this season. People say I’m old. I’m only warming up.”
Good for Ibrahimovic and good, also, he believes, for PSG. Winning the Champions League is as much an obsession for the club’s Qatari owners as it was for Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich. If PSG fail to at least get to the semi-finals, there will be a reckoning that could break up of this expensively assembled team, although coach, Laurent Blanc, will remain.
“The team, the club I’m playing in now, is a project that began 3½ years ago,” Ibrahimovic said. “What happened before that, with all respect… this club was born the day the Qataris took over. Look at Chelsea. They had the same thing 10 years ago and when did they win the Champions League Four years ago. What we’ve done is amazing. We’ve made such a good team in such a short time. Why haven’t we advanced? This comes with experience.
“With time, these things will come. With time they can achieve anything here. There are no limits. They will hunt this Champions League until they get it, and they will not stop, with me or without me.
“I wanted to be part of this, and to take on this challenge. I want to do things that will be written in history books, individual and collective.”