x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic can silence some of his doubters

If Tottenham Hotspur regard Zlatan Ibrahimovic's run of three Serie A games without a goal as a good omen ahead of tonight's Champions League tie against AC Milan, they are underestimating the Swedish striker.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, centre, has had plenty to celebrate this season with AC Milan.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, centre, has had plenty to celebrate this season with AC Milan.

On paper, February has been a lean month for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede has not added to this season's 12 Serie A goals in the last three fixtures. It marks his longest run without a league goal since he joined AC Milan.

Tottenham Hotspur might regard this as a good omen ahead of tonight's Champions League tie in San Siro. More likely, they have looked well beyond the simplest statistic, read the small print, and watched the relevant footage.

Ibrahimovic was excellent on Saturday night against Parma, when his fellow strikers Antonio Cassano and Robinho dominated the headlines and the scoresheet.

Take the pass which Ibrahimovic provided for Clarence Seedorf to convert Milan's opener in the 4-0 win, a volley with the instep of his right foot, about half a metre above the ground, as the ball came to him quick and heavy.

He had to kill some of the speed, divert the trajectory of the ball and anticipate Seedorf's forward run, all the while having adjusted his movement and body shape because Alexander Merkel's pass to Ibrahimovic had taken a significant deflection. For a big man, as the cliche goes, Ibrahimovic is great with his feet. The Seedorf set-up was one of three direct assists Ibrahimovic has provided in Milan's last two matches.

His wonderfully measured cross, delivered with patience and just the right force, meant Alexandre Pato stroked in an easy equaliser against Genoa; another assured touch invited Cassano to open his account for Milan against Parma.

In all, the Swede has 10 assists in Serie A this season.

At the moment, those figures are among the principal reasons Ibrahimovic is on course for a remarkable sequence: in his last seven seasons, whichever club he has been playing for has finished at the top of their domestic league.

That's four clubs - including Juventus, who were later stripped of their Serie A titles of 2005 and 2006 - in three different countries, Holland, Italy and Spain.

But there is one major football nation where, largely, Ibrahimovic's talents are viewed with scepticism: England, where his reputation as one of the world's finest attacking players has been loudly scorned.

After Ibrahimovic's Inter Milan were knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United two years ago, Andy Townsend, a regular pundit on the British ITV network, said: "Why, we ask again, all the fuss about Ibrahimovic?"

At the 2006 World Cup, Martin O'Neill, the former Glasgow Celtic and Aston Villa manager, announced in his capacity as a BBC expert: "Ibrahimovic is the most over-rated player in the world."

Ibrahimovic is keenly aware of this doubt. He is plainly ambitious that to his serial domestic honours he should add a Champions League. That was why he moved to Barcelona, for a fee - close to €60 million (Dh298m) - that had many, especially the English, gasping, a fee Barcelona would regret when he left a year later for Milan.

Ibrahimovic, the master of assists, also felt unfairly maligned that Barca thought he was not enough of a team player. He felt frustrated that, less than 12 months after he left Inter to chase the Champions League elsewhere, Inter promptly won it.

Ibrahimovic had at least done something to impress the English in the course of the competition. In the quarter-finals against Arsenal he scored twice for Barcelona in their first-leg, a 2-2 draw in London. In ITV's broadcasting studios there would be less of the sneering that had narrated his performances the previous year for Inter against United, or the year before that, when Liverpool beat Inter.

Not everybody in English football doubts the magic of Ibrahimovic .

"You just to have to look at his figures in Italy," Steven Pienaar, the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, who won two Dutch leagues as Ibrahimovic's colleague at Ajax, told me. "He's high-class and he'll be a big threat. He's also a great guy. People give him a reputation as difficult, but I never found that."