Wednesday 7 December 2016

James Lawton: Ibrahimovic has top English clubs daring to dream

Published 11/03/2016 | 02:30

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Reuters)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Reuters)

Sometimes a man has to wait a while to find his full and most glorious expression, and this is true even for a footballer for whom the years race before him so fast.

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Eric Cantona was a relatively grizzled 26 when he found his destiny as the often mysterious, dark inspiration of Manchester United.

That makes Zlatan Ibrahimovic at 34 an unlikely successor to the old French sorcerer but this week at Stamford Bridge he could have done no more to create a late but utterly bewitching claim for such a climax to his career.

First, he ridiculed the large body of opinion that said his title-hoarding travels through Europe (a total of 12 title wins in Holland, Italy, Spain and France) would bring no guarantees on a dank night in Stoke or West Bromwich. He did this with a performance that was as strong and as subtle as anything produced by Cantona when he shaped Paris Saint-Germain's serene passage to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

The Swede gave the sharpest of edges to speculation that he sees a climactic season or two in the Premier League, ideally if united again with his hero coach Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford.

After making one goal and scoring another with power and panache that touched the sublime, he declared: "I have another two months with PSG. I'm not in discussions with anyone. Let's see what happens. I'm not closing the door for anyone. I'll put it on the table and see if it's good for me and my family."

The reality is that his family would be secure enough if he opted for a prolonged walk through the woods of his native Sweden at the end of his attempt to land his first European title with PSG in the spring - a possibility that, notwithstanding the compelling brilliance of Barcelona, was made to seem something less than outlandish as Chelsea were so classily brushed aside.

Ibrahimovic, like Cantona, is a man who sees football as something more than a hugely lucrative living.

The Frenchman once said: "At Manchester United I feel I have found my spiritual home. Every time I go out to play for them I feel the ghosts of the past around me. I hear them urging me on."

The Swede might not have expressed quite such profound yearnings but no doubt he invests much of a maverick nature in success - and vindication - on the field.

He was hugely lifted a few years ago when he scored four against England - the football nation least impressed by his reputation - and there is a growing theory that he would enjoy underlining the meaning of that success with a spectacular and extended swansong in the Premier League.

United's lingering aura - and his fierce admiration for Mourinho - might well be all the incentive he needs if the former Special One is right about the fact that he will inevitably succeed the embattled Louis van Gaal.

Ibrahimovic could not have been more enthusiastic about his experience with Mourinho at Inter Milan - or contrasted it more severely with his time under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.

In a remarkable outpouring in his autobiograpy, he said: "If Mourinho brightens up the room, Guardiola pulls down the curtains. Mourinho would become a guy I was basically willing to die for."

Stimulation

Clearly having Guardiola across town with Manchester City would be a considerable stimulation towards hitting the notes that came to him so beautifully at Stamford Bridge.

It was a tour de force which did rather more than undermine Chelsea. At a time when the Premier League, the charm of Claudio Ranieri's doggedly miraculous challenge for the title with Leicester City apart, is so desperately in need of uplift, the fine edge of the improbable and the majestic, Ibrahimovic covered so much neglected ground.

He ran with the sharpest instinct - and when it mattered most he displayed the authority of a natural-born finisher.

Rio Ferdinand believes that Ibrahimovic has the power to lift any club in the Premier League - and not least the brittle ambitions of Arsenal, because he would give them "a winning mentality".

Certainly such a mission would also carry a degree of appeal for such a highly motivated and self-aware performer.

He was still a teenager when Arsene Wenger, awash with praise over his nurturing of such as Patrick Vieira and, supremely, Thierry Henry, invited him to Arsenal for a trial. Famously, Ibrahimovic snapped back the message: "I don't do auditions."

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