In the aftermath of Milan’s title-clinching draw at Roma this past Saturday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was asked when he truly knew his side were going to win the title. “From the first day,” he replied. It was a good example of why he’s often accused of being overconfident, but it’s easy to see why he was so convinced. This triumph is the eighth consecutive league title the Swede has won, a run sustained across five separate clubs, in three different countries. It’s an extraordinary record.
There is still a large group who remain unconvinced by the Swede, however. A major reason for this doubt is Ibrahimovic’s Champions League record, particularly in the knockout stages against major clubs. Indeed, while Ibrahimovic has the Midas touch when it comes to league titles, he appears to have the opposite effect in Europe. In 2008-09, Barcelona won the Champions League when Ibrahimovic was at Inter. Then he joined Barcelona, and Inter triumphed. Now Ibrahimovic has left Barca, and they’re once again in the final, while Ibrahimovic didn’t make it past the second round with Milan.
Champions League performances count for a lot when it comes to a player’s reputation, especially a reputation outside the player’s own league. Many outside Italy won’t have seen Ibrahimovic’s excellent performances all season in Serie A and will judge him solely on the basis of a couple of high-profile games against Tottenham. Although there’s plenty to be said for showing your true quality in the biggest games, consistency across an entire season, while less likely to grab headlines, is what managers love. It’s also what brings league trophies.
Ibrahimovic’s failings in the Champions League shouldn’t be confused with failings in big games, per se, which is a frequent, if misplaced, criticism. Ibrahimovic is a master in big games – domestically, at least. He was the key player
in this year’s first Milan derby, causing his ex-Inter teammates all sorts of problems, as well as winning and scoring the decisive penalty. At Barcelona, he volleyed home the only goal of the game six minutes into his first-ever Clasico.
And a “big game” is not just a match against a big club – it’s about the context of the encounter. On the final day of the 2007-08 season, for example, Inter needed a win away at Parma to be sure of the league title. Ibrahimovic had been out for seven weeks with a knee injury, but bravely entered play in the 51st minute to score the only two goals of the game while barely able to sprint properly. That was a big game.
In his time in Italy, Ibrahimovic has been a joy to watch. His all-round play and touch on the ball is wonderful, and he’s among the most skillful players to have plied his trade in Serie A. Take his ludicrous overhead pass with the outside of his foot against Lazio a couple of years back. Extravagant? Definitely. Pointless? Perhaps. But it’s certainly enjoyable, and in a slow league that is sometimes overly concerned with strategy, Ibrahimovic adds a touch of flair. When that’s coupled with a willingness to do the scrappy things, and potency in front of goal, you have an all-round fantastic striker.
However, the eight league titles to his name require a caveat, because two of them won for Juventus were subsequently revoked after the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. But a common counterargument against Ibrahimovic’s run that he has simply turned up at already successful clubs and joined in the fun is unfair.