x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A new hero in Barcelona

Lionel Messi may be considered the greatest player in the world, but it is giant images of Zlatan Ibrahimovic which prevail on the streets of Barcelona.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, right, dives to head home Barca's third goal against Sporting Gijon on Monday night at the Camp Nou.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, right, dives to head home Barca's third goal against Sporting Gijon on Monday night at the Camp Nou.

BARCELONA // Lionel Messi may be considered the greatest player in the world, but it is giant images of Zlatan Ibrahimovic which prevail on the streets of Barcelona. A prominent advertising campaign sees the Swede fill the side of an 18-floor building in the centre, plus several metro trains and all the exits to the stations closest to the Camp Nou. Now all Barca's record signing has to do is justify the considerable hype that accompanies his vast transfer fee.

The fans have much faith in Ibrahimovic. Spain's cities usually close down for August as their residents flock to second homes and holidays, but more than 90,000 - the biggest opening day crowd in living memory - were at Camp Nou for a 10pm kick-off on Monday as Barca opened their league campaign against Sporting Gijon. Ibrahimovic's popularity still plays second fiddle to Messi when it comes to names on the back of Barca shirts, but with the Argentine absent, preparing for his country's key World Cup game against Brazil, the Swede's league debut was the main talking point.

Camp Nou's 600-seat press box only reaches capacity for big Champions League games and the visit of Real Madrid, yet it was bursting with a cosmopolitan mix: Swedes, Italians and a smattering of Ukrainian journalists in the Catalan capital to see Dymytro Chygrynskiy sign a five-year contract on transfer deadline day after Barca agreed to pay his former club Shakhtar Donetsk ?25 million (Dh133m). His likely defensive partner, captain Carles Puyol, also made his 300th league appearance, putting him sixth in the club's all time appearance list.

The scene set, it was Ibrahimovic's strike partner Bojan who stole the show for much of the game. The diminutive striker, who turned 19 last week, is much improved since his coach Pep Guardiola took more responsibility for his progress. A year ago, Bojan was in danger of going the same way as Giovanni Dos Santos and slipping out of Barca. Just two league goals in 23 appearances (admittedly many of them from the bench) was a poor return, but now he is thriving and capable of playing in any position across Barca's front free.

Bojan put the Catalans ahead after 21 minutes, heading home after Seydou Keita had flicked on a Xavi cross. Jose Mourinho was among those watching, the Inter Milan manager studying the club where he once worked ahead of this month's Champions League game against Barca - and doubtless to witness his former charge Ibrahimovic. The former Chelsea manager nodded approvingly as Keita rose above the Sporting defence to head Barca's second from a Dani Alves cross before the break - again from a corner. Keita nearly headed a third in the 75th minute, five minutes before Bojan was carried off on a cart with a damaged leg muscle which will keep him out for three weeks.

Bojan's efforts were appreciated, but the roar couldn't compare to that which greeted Ibrahimovic's first Barca goal from a diving header in the 82nd minute. The Swede was visibly lifted by the response and put Pedro through on goal with a sublime ball a minute later, but Friday's Super Cup scorer struck wide. "I can't complain about anything the team did as everyone was making an effort and everyone was running," Guardiola said after the 3-0 victory. "We controlled the match." A winning start for Barca, which they will not take for granted as they lost the first game last season.

amitten@thenational.ae