x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Champions League: Eyes on Zlatan Ibrahimovic to turn it on as Barcelona and PSG battle it out

A serial collector of domestic championships but the top European prize has thus far eluded the Swedish striker, writes Ian Hawkey.

With the first leg tied 2-2, the stage is set for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, right, to shine at Camp Nou. Bertrand Langlois / AFP
With the first leg tied 2-2, the stage is set for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, right, to shine at Camp Nou. Bertrand Langlois / AFP

There are many factors that make Zlatan Ibrahimovic a 24-carat giant of modern European football. His uncanny knack of delivering prizes is among them.

Next month, he should pick up another league title, in a fourth country, for a sixth club, assuming Paris St Germain maintain their seven-point advantage at the top of Ligue 1.

It is almost certain he will end up the leading scorer in the French top flight, as he was twice in his seven seasons in Italy's Serie A.

Only once in the past nine seasons has a club with Ibrahimobvic on its roster not finished at the top of its table.

He had a Midas touch which goes all the way back to Ajax in 2003/04, through two successive seasons at Juventus - though that club, because of the calciopoli scandal, later had those titles revoked - three at Inter Milan, one from his campaign with Barcelona in Spain, and the 2010/11 scudetto with AC Milan.

Only last May, at Milan, did he finish with a silver medal.

No wonder they used to call him "Ibracadabra": the Swede is a nine-times-out-of-10 magic spell that wins the league.

No wonder, that at one of the most dramatic twists in direction of his eventful and restless career, the president of the club saying goodbye to Ibrahimovic turned to the player just before he signed his termination contract (and autographed his new deal with yet another giant), and declared: "I want you to know, Zlatan, this is the worst piece of business I have done in my life."

The quote is recorded in Ibrahimovic's lively autobiography, I Am Zlatan, much of which is taken up with the season he spent at Barcelona, which began with a deal worth €65 million (Dh305.5m) to Inter Milan, the club he was leaving, and ended with Barca earning just over €20m, in staggered payments, from selling him to AC Milan.

With the transfer window about to close, it was Sandro Rosell, Barcelona's president, who acknowledged that the loss made little financial sense.

Ibrahimovic hardly made him feel better about it, either. Of Barcelona's financial loss over 11 months, he said: "That is the price of poor leadership."

Ibrahimovic's spell at Barcelona ended badly, for most parties, except Milan: Rosell regretted the fee; the player had grown unhappy at being marginalised; Pep Guardiola, the coach of a brilliantly successful team, had not tapped into the Swede's potential.

Ibrahimovic cited Guardiola as the cause of his frustrations, following a promising start after his big-money arrival.

The "bad leadership", Ibrahimovic spoke of was not so much Rosell's, in the striker's mind, as Guardiola's, for not using his expensive recruit in the right position, for not letting "Ibra" express himself.

So PSG's new star goes back to Camp Nou tonight with more than the usual motivation for the second leg of a Uefa Champions League quarter-final tied at 2-2. When a player has moved employer as many times as Ibrahimovic, facing an "ex" is hardly special.

But if you have compiled the sort of record he has in club football's most elite competition, the European Cup, meetings which confront him with other clubs from his lengthy resume tend to come with a sense of jinx.

That is the other side of the Ibra enigma: this serial compiler of domestic championships is also a man who has been consistently thwarted at the later stages of the Champions League.

The pattern started with Ajax, who were knocked out in the quarter-finals when a young Ibrahimovic was burnishing his reputation there a decade ago.

Their conquerors were … AC Milan, with whom Ibrahimovic would later finish on the losing side in the last eight, beaten by … Barcelona.

With Barcelona, he reached the semi-finals, but lost there to … Inter Milan, the club he had just left.

Six of the seven employers Ibrahimovic has had in his senior career, including Malmo, where he started in his native Sweden, have reached at least one European Cup final in their history.

However, Ibrahimovic - the man on whom more money has been spent, in accumulated transfer fees, than any other footballer - never has.

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