Wednesday 1 March 2017

Sad end as Ibrahimovic bows out a pale shadow of once-great player

Sweden 0 Belgium 1

Tim Rich

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic reacts as he leaves the field. Photo: Claude Paris/AP Photo
Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic reacts as he leaves the field. Photo: Claude Paris/AP Photo

There is now just one Swede left at this tournament and Lars Lagerback will be here in Nice on Monday overseeing an Iceland side that has shown far more Viking values than the land of his birth.

The only way Sweden were going to qualify for the knockout stages of the Euro 2016 was if Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has never quite fulfilled his extraordinary talents on the international stage, chose to scatter some last stardust on the Riviera.

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic in action with Belgium's Thomas Meunier. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic in action with Belgium's Thomas Meunier. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

However, Sweden's weakness can be judged from the fact that their only shots on target in Euro 2016 came in this their final match of the tournament.

The closest they came to a breakthrough was when Kevin De Bruyne cleared the ball off the line.

There was a goal in Nice that was worthy of Ibrahimovic's ability, struck powerfully from the edge of the area, leaving the goalkeeper helpless but it came from Radja Nainggolan and ensured that Belgium progressed fairly smoothly to the business phase of the competition.

Zlatan, who had a goal disallowed and a couple more opportunities besides, will return home, probably to complete the business of signing for Manchester United.

Belgium's Radja Nainggolan celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal. Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters
Belgium's Radja Nainggolan celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal. Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

Perhaps it was fitting that Ibrahimovic ended his international career on the Cote d'Azur where so many of the internationally rich end up. It is a retirement home for what used to be called the jet set and Zlatan at 34 is definitely part of that.

Despite a career that has seen him win a dozen domestic titles in his last 13 seasons the immigrant boy from the unforgiving suburbs of Malmo has never stamped his authority and talent on a major tournament. When he was selected to play his first international at home, he thought Stockholm bewilderingly big.

"It felt like New York, I was gawping at everything," he recalled, admitting that most of what he gawped at were women.

Having lived in Milan, Barcelona and Paris, Ibrahimovic is a little more sophisticated these days but he went into what in his guts he suspected would be his final match with something still to prove.

The trains at Nice Station that disgorged thousands of yellow-shirted supporters all with 'Ibrahimovic' on their back suggested there was still plenty who carried the faith.

However, Sweden were facing a side that had very much more than just the one option. The was Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco to menace the Swedish back four but mostly there was De Bruyne.

Manchester City have contributed two footballers who cost around £50m to this tournament and, while Raheem Sterling will probably watch England's game against Iceland in Nice from the bench, De Bruyne was at the heart of everything imaginative about Belgium's play.

In a first half that Belgium had much the better of, his crosses might have produced at least a couple of goals had Romelu Lukaku timed his run better or had the right-back, Thomas Meunier got a better connection with his header.

Eventually, midway through the second half, just after Ibrahimovic had his goal disallowed, De Bruyne decided to do it himself and forced a fine, full-length save from Andreas Isaksson.

Eighteen minutes from the end the Sweden goalkeeper kept his nerve to deny Lukaku when the Everton striker was sprinting through on goal.

Zlatan did not sprint. He hovered, like a cat waiting for a mouse to sprint across the living-room floor.

When he pounced, there was a shot that cracked past Thibaut Courtois' post and a free-kick with time running out that the Chelsea keeper pushed away hard.

Ibrahimovic may have changed since his debut but so have Sweden and not for the better.

He came into a Sweden side that had players of the calibre of Stefan Schwarz, Patrik Andersson and Henrik Larsson.

Now there was just him left and nobody believed it would be enough.

Sweden's captain threw the ball away in frustration as the Belgian players celebrated and he cut a forlorn figure after the final whistle as the 34-year-old slowly walked over to applaud his team's yellow-clad fans. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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