Sunday 22 April 2018

Miguel Delaney: Wounded Ibrahimovic will be different animal at Euros

Paris Saint-Germain's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
Paris Saint-Germain's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

This wasn't the Zlatan Ibrahimovic we knew - or, at least, the Zlatan Ibrahimovic we're often made to think we know.

When Ireland hosted Sweden in their 2014 World Cup qualifier, after all, the Paris Saint-Germain star won the game with a divine pass for Anders Svensson to make it 2-1. It was a level of quality beyond any other player on the pitch.

Yet on Tuesday, Ibrahimovic once again found that Champions League semi-finals are a level beyond him and Paris Saint-Germain. A floundering performance in the 3-2 aggregate defeat to Manchester City meant that, after four seasons in France, he couldn't once drive the club to the last four - a stage he has only been at once.

It is the oddity in the career of a player justifiably proclaimed - if often by himself - as one of the best in the world, and someone who could yet have the decisive say in Ireland's summer.

If the nature of the Euro 2016 group means that so much comes down to the first match against Sweden, so much of that match could come down to Ibrahimovic's mood. PSG's failure could have been the worst thing for Ireland, because a great player will be motivated, but there's still a lingering sense that the achievements don't match up to the profile.

Likely to leave France in the summer, Ibrahimovic has never hid his obsession with the Champions League. He wanted to make a lasting statement by getting PSG to the real elite stage. For someone so clearly concerned by his media image, it would have been a signpost of his effect on the club. Ibrahimovic instead became a symbol for PSG in another way: so much talent, so much monetary worth, and still mostly just racking up easily-won titles rather than offering those real, legacy-making feats.

If that sounds harsh, it's worth considering the context of many of his medals. The stat that he has won 13 domestic titles in 15 years is often put forward as testament to his greatness, but few of them are particularly great. After two at Ajax, he went to a Juventus team in 2004 that then had two leagues revoked by the 2006 Calciopoli scandal.

Ibrahimovic immediately moved to Inter, the only big Italian club not punished by Calciopoli, who thereby enjoyed a huge advantage over everyone else to win three in a row. A move to Barcelona followed, where he fell foul of Pep Guardiola and was out of the team by the time they retained the title. That led to a stint at Milan that also brought a Serie A title, before making what seemed a hasty move to France at the peak of his career.

The fact that PSG have the limitless money of Qatar also brought a pattern of his career to a peak: Ibrahimovic has almost always been at big clubs with huge superiority in uncompetitive leagues. It is little wonder Arrigo Sacchi said he is "strong against the weak, and weak against the strong". That is harsh given the genuinely brilliant big moments Ibrahimovic has produced - not least against Italy in Euro 2004 - but it is a much bigger wonder as to why one of the best in the world has spent all but one year of his career at leagues ranked lower than third in Europe.

None of this is to deny Ibrahimovic's quality, but it does often seem as if there is a disparity between his career and the image of it.

The problem for Ireland is that there is a bigger disparity between his level and Martin O'Neill's squad. Ibrahimovic didn't get the statement he wants with PSG. He could yet make up for that this summer. PSG's problems could make a problem for Ireland.

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