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Jury out on enigmatic Ibrahimovic

Uefa Champions League, First knock-out round, second leg
Venue: Old Trafford Date: Wednesday, 11 March Kick-off: 1945 GMT
Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live with live text commentary on the BBC Sport website


Zlatan Ibrahimovic


By Aimee Lewis

There are few players who provoke such conflicting opinions as the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Frequently described by his Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho as the best player in the world, there are those who would agree with the Portuguese's proclamation that the beanpole forward is better than Manchester United's world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.

Yet, for those whose experience of European football comes only via the Champions League, the hoopla that surrounds the Inter striker leaves them rather perplexed.

Ahead of Inter's first-leg, last-16 Champions League tie with defending champions United, Mourinho was confident the skilful Scandinavian would pose Sir Alex Ferguson's team some problems but, even against a makeshift defence, he did little to placate his detractors in the goalless encounter.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
He was so strong and quick, had a fantastic touch. He was definitely in the front line when God handed out those gifts

Ex-Malmo goalkeeper Lee Baxter on Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Against Liverpool at the same stage of last year's competition he was, at best, anonymous and although he has scored six goals in 21 Champions League ties for Inter, none have come in the knockout stages.

So why does the supposed best-paid player in the world, who has won five league titles in five years (admittedly Juventus' achievements were revoked because of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal) and scored 47 goals in 78 appearances for Inter, frequently falter when a floodlit night in one of football's finest amphitheatres would seem to be the perfect stage?

Marcus Allback, a former Swedish international team-mate, believes the 27-year-old forward puts too much pressure on himself to not only perform but dazzle on the big occasion.

"He wants to be the best," former Aston Villa striker Allback told BBC Sport.

"The charming thing about him is that you never know what you are going to get; what he's going to say or how good he will play."

One thing is for sure, the former Ajax and Juventus forward's fluctuating form in the Champions League does not stem from a lack of confidence.

In 2001, when asked whether anything could stop him from becoming the best player in the world, the then 20-year-old's response was crisp: "Injury".

The feints, the pirouettes, the no-look passes interspersed with breathtaking goals - a backheel at the near post against Bologna in October being one of the most memorable - certainly help back up Ibrahimovic's braggadocio.

ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC CV
1999-2001: Malmo
2001-2004: Ajax
2004-2006: Juventus
2006-: Inter Milan

Goalkeeper Lee Baxter, then a seasoned 25-year-old professional who had learned his trade with Blackburn Rovers and has had spells with Rangers and AIK, will never forget his first day with Swedish club Malmo, where he was greeted by a lanky teenager in the changing rooms.

"At last, a proper goalkeeper!" joked the striker, who had just burst into the first team.

Then, with a straight face, the "cocky" kid from the harbour town's ghetto flats in Rosengard, added: "You will never have seen a player like me."

"A lot of the truth was said in jest," recalled Baxter. "He was a young player and in training he would do things I had never seen any other player do before or since - and I've played with Michael Laudrup.

"For Swedish football it was 'wow, where has this kid come from'. Malmo knew they were sitting on a goldmine.

"He was so strong and quick, had a fantastic touch. He had everything. He was definitely in the front line when God handed out those gifts."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
He is always involved when it comes to pranks and he's a funny guy who always has a smile on his face

Former Sweden international Marcus Allbeck

But Baxter also remembers a young player burdening himself unnecessarily.

"In a sense, you can compare him to Fernando Torres when he was with Atletico," said Baxter.

"Torres is a great goalscorer but put a lot of pressure on himself when he was in Spain. Zlatan was the same, and that was because he was, and is, so good."

Liverpool star Torres, however, has lived up to his billing on the biggest stage, scoring the winning goal for Spain in the Euro 2008 final.

Ibrahimovic's performances in Europe's premier club competition on the other hand have added fuel to his critics' claim that the striker too often goes missing when his team needs him the most.

As Mourinho himself once put it, Ibrahimovic, who joined Inter from Juve for 24.8m euros in 2006, "needs the success to match his talent".

The striker we see these days, however, is a far more polished performer than the hot-headed youngster, once described by his former headmistress as "the number one bad boy".

Baxter denied he was once involved in a training ground bust-up with Ibrahimovic but conceded: "Sometimes we'd both wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

"With all the talent he had I'm surprised he didn't get more frustrated when people around him didn't hold that standard."

Meanwhile, Allback revealed the now mellow father-of-two was "totally crazy as a kid".

"He lost his temper really easily and it was affecting his game. He is now much more of a team player and has learnt that the team is number one," said Allback.

"Off the pitch though he's quite a calm person, always involved when it comes to pranks and he is a funny guy who always has a smile on his face."

Ibrahimovic's fiery temper, mixed with his footballing panache and background - he was born to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother - meant many in his home country found him difficult to fathom.

But both Allbeck and Baxter agree that Ibrahimovic is succeeding in changing the perception of himself as an aloof footballer, which is perhaps testimony to his media savvy manager.

606: DEBATE
Roonaldezov

Before the first-leg tie against United, Ibrahimovic stated: "With him I have learned a lot, perhaps more than I had in the last five years.

"He is the most complete coach I have ever had. He knows everything and has even taught me how to speak with the journalists."

Baxter believed the Special One's magic touch was rubbing off on Ibrahimovic and explained: "In Sweden you didn't get media training as you would in the top leagues like Italy so it's totally different.

"Zlatan won the Swedish people over at a recent sports gala where he was open and genuine to the media and broke down the myth that he was unapproachable. It's all part of the maturing process."

The next step in Ibrahimovic's development is to woo those watching at the Theatre of Dreams in Wednesday's Champions League return leg and fulfil his aim of "showing that I am better than Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov".

A tall order indeed, but should he succeed in outshining the United duo both he and Mourinho will have good reason to boast.



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see also
Man Utd v Inter Milan
08 Mar 09 |  Europe
Inter Milan 0-0 Man Utd
24 Feb 09 |  Europe
Ferguson rues lack of away goal
24 Feb 09 |  Europe
European photos
08 Mar 09 |  Europe


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