During Barcelona's 1-0 victory over Almeria on Saturday night, a message flashed up on Camp Nou's two giant scoreboards wishing striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic a happy 28th birthday. The 80,000 crowd roared approval.
Ibrahimovic enjoys his reign in Spain
BARCELONA // During Barcelona's 1-0 victory over Almeria on Saturday night, a message flashed up on Camp Nou's two giant scoreboards wishing striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic a happy 28th birthday. The 80,000 crowd roared approval, as well they might. In just six weeks, Barca's record signing has won over the many sceptics who questioned the huge cost of bringing him from Inter Milan.
It was not only that Barca paid ?40million (Dh214m) for the Swede, but that the Milanese also received Samuel Eto'o - the three times African Player of the Year and the most prolific striker in world football over the past five years. To those unfamiliar with Barca's desperation to shift the cult of Eto'o's personality from their dressing room, the transfer made no sense. Yet coach Pep Guardiola was insistent that Eto'o left and when you have just won the treble, you tend to get what you want.
David Villa was Barca's first choice replacement, but the Catalans refused to go higher than ?40m and meet the ?50m asking price. They thought that a Valencia facing bankruptcy would relent, but Valencia received fresh financing. With both clubs refusing to budge, the impasse was not resolved and the transfer fell through, leaving Villa in tears on the phone to Guardiola. Ibrahimovic was approached and a deal concluded, though legal arguments still linger about fees due to Eto'o, with the Cameroonian claiming that Barca president Joan Laporta agreed to pay a ?3m severance fee.
That is the least of the Barca president's problems - he yesterday reported to the police that he has been receiving regular death threats. Ibrahimovic let his football do the talking. Unlike Thierry Henry, who endured a difficult first season after his big-money transfer from Arsenal, the Swede has started his Camp Nou career well. Described by one former teammate as "a Baltic Swede in a Brazilian's body", 'Ibra' scored in his first league game and his second.
He netted in his third game and in his fourth and fifth too, becoming the first Barca player to score in the opening five games of the season. It hasn't only been about his goals. His link-up play with Lionel Messi has given Barca a fresh attacking dimension. And those who questioned his temperament and surly demeanour have been encouraged by Ibrahimovic being so self-critical that he can frequently be seen berating himself during a game for not pressing enough.
He admitted on Friday that he has never been asked to run so much in his career as at Barca. The hard-fought win over Almeria maintained Barca's perfect start to the season. They laboured to their sixth win in succession, which came thanks to a stunning strike from Pedro, who can add the goal to the winner in the Spanish and European Super cups to his excellent season so far. "They had three clear chances and we had none so the result was fair," said Almeria coach Hugo Sanchez, in a game otherwise notable because Ibrahimovic did not score, though he set up Pedro's goal.
The Swede has now served a successful Barca inauguration, with Andres Iniesta saying: "None of us here can fault what he's done so far. He's settled in immediately, he works hard and gets his rewards. "We feel very comfortable playing with him because he makes difficult things seem easy. He finds space when there is none and releases the ball at the exactly the right time. And he scores lots of goals."
In Saturday night's other games, Atletico Madrid earned their first league win of the season, beating promoted Zaragoza 2-1. Atletico's 18-year-old third choice goalkeeper David De Gea made a superb penalty save after bringing down Jorge Lopez. Jurado and Antonio Lopez scored the Atletico goals. Deportivo La Coruna moved up to fourth in the league table after winning 1-0 at Tenerife.