x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Swede's lean spell a worry for Barcelona

Ibrahimovic has scored once in last month and his form is in stark contrast to Eto'o, Inter Milan's former Catalan striker.

Ibrahimovic has netted 16 goals for Barca this season, although only one in the last month.
Ibrahimovic has netted 16 goals for Barca this season, although only one in the last month.

The contrast was clear. Samuel Eto'o coolly scoring a winning goal for Inter Milan at Chelsea to send the Italians into the last eight of the Champions League. While in Barcelona, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man bought at great expense to replace the Cameroon striker, slumped on the touchlines after being dropped in favour of Thierry Henry for Barca's clash with VfB Stuttgart.

Eto'o and Ibrahimovic switched clubs last summer. Inter wanted Eto'o, 28, but Barca wanted Ibrahimovic, also 28, a lot more. Business could be done, but it took six weeks of negotiating before Eto'o was valued at just ?20 million (Dh99.5m), meaning Ibrahimovic has a ?66m price tag - the second highest in history after Cristiano Ronaldo. Many felt that was too high for a player who has seldom shone in the Champions League - unlike Eto'o, whose locker Ibrahimo-vic would occupy at Camp Nou. Pep Guardiola's admiration of the Swede was matched in Italy though where he was revered for his strength and skill, which led one journalist to describe him as "half ballerina, half gangster".

With absolute faith in their coach's judgement, Barca fans backed their expensive acquisition and 60,000 feverish fans greeted Ibrahimovic's arrival at the Camp Nou. The noise created was louder than at any league game and club officials made much of the fanfare. No player in Barca's history, from Diego Maradona to Ronaldinho (who attracted 20,000) has been welcomed by so many. On the evidence up until Christmas, their faith was rewarded. Rather than wilt in the Mediterranean sun like so many other big money Barca signings, the 6ft 4in striker could not have wished for a better start. By the festive break he was the top scorer for Europe's most attack-minded team and capped a first half of the season with the only goal against arch- rivals Real Madrid. You could hear the noise from the 97,138 crowd back in the capital.

"Ibra's a great player for several reasons," said Xavi, the Barca midfielder. "Physically he's strong and holds the ball very well. And for such a strong person he is very skilful. His football philosophy is as if he's come through the cantera [youth system] at Barca, because he plays like one of us. He's fitted into our mindset. He sees the passes before we receive the ball. His understanding with all us, and especially Messi, is very important."

"He always shows and is always ready," added teammate Daniel Alves. "He always comes to the ball and his aggression is good for us. He is strong enough to hold off two defenders while receiving the ball with his back to the goal, but skilful enough to back-heel a pass between them to set up a goal." Not everyone was convinced and murmurs began to surface as Ibrahimovic went through a lean spell, more so because Eto'o, the man who received a standing ovation from Barca fans when he returned with Inter earlier in the season, was doing so well across the Med.

On Sunday, Ibrahimovic scored his first goal in over a month. It may have been a penalty in the last minute against Zaragoza, but it appeared to unburden the Swede of his recent stresses. He will be key if Barca are to retain the Primera Liga and Champions League come May. His 16 goals with two months of the season remaining represent a fair return so far, though that figure is less than half of top scorer Lionel Messi. Perhaps it is not fair to compare anyone with the peerless Argentine at the moment. Both are expected to be in action as Barcelona entertain mid-table Osasuna tonight at Camp Nou. It gives the Catalans a chance to go three points ahead of Real Madrid, who play at their neighbours Getafe tomorrow.

Osasuna are one of the few sides to take points off Barca this season in a 1-1 draw in October. Without a win in six, the Pamplona-based team go into their toughest game of the season in poor form. Ibrahimovic will be able to sympathise with their plight. @Email:sports@thenational.ae Barcelona v Osasuna, 11pm, Aljazeera Sport +2