OK, I'll admit it: I used to be one of those people. You know the sort, the people who went around saying Zlatan Ibrahimović was overrated, flattered to deceive, always disappeared in the big games. It was an opinion as lazy as I considered the big man's performances when the stakes were high.
And yet, and yet, maybe we weren't as wrong as all that. If Ibrahimović has been "the best player in the group stages", to quote his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Gregory van der Wiel, he has also operated consistently at a level once glimpsed more sporadically. Rested as Group C winners Paris lost 2-1 at SL Benfica on Tuesday – a coincidence? – he boasts the superb return of eight goals from five UEFA Champions League outings this term, already three more than in his previous best seasons in the competition, with FC Internazionale Milano in 2007/08 and AC Milan in 2011/12.
Skipping the trip to Lisbon denied Ibrahimović a chance to keep pace with nine-goal Cristiano Ronaldo, but after matchday five he and the Real Madrid CF forward had both equalled the old group stage record tallies of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Hernán Crespo and Filippo Inzaghi. Moreover, the Sweden captain has set a new club benchmark for goals in a single UEFA Champions League tilt, outstripping the seven strikes rattled in by Paris great George Weah in 1994/95. In short, he has been phenomenal, his four goals away to RSC Anderlecht an obvious highlight, and drawing applause even from the awestruck home fans.
The statistics tell only a fraction of the story too, with Ibrahimović having caught the eye for his prodigious leadership qualities. Inheriting the armband when skipper Thiago Silva was injured – and a raging mass of intensity and hunger on all occasions – Ibrahimović has revelled in his responsibility as the vanguard in Laurent Blanc's lineup. Three times he has opened the scoring in Europe this term, twice inside the opening seven minutes, and it was also he who ensured a point at home against Anderlecht when Paris suffered a rare off-day.
Likewise he has been inspired in build-up play, drawing defenders and releasing team-mates with precision passes. That he has yet to record an assist must be considered a mere anomaly, as he currently stands top of that particular table in Ligue 1.
It is tempting, in fact, to wonder if Ibrahimović hasn't redoubled his focus on the UEFA Champions League this year, with the express intention of winning it at the earliest possible opportunity. After all, when he joked about "feeling old" after scoring against Benfica on the eve of his 32nd birthday, the line slipped out all too spontaneously. He made his 100th appearance in the tournament at home to Olympiacos FC but is alone among the 18 players to have passed the century mark in not having lifted the trophy. Similarly, his 39 goals put him tenth on the all-time list of UEFA Champions League scorers, and of those above him only Van Nistelrooy has no winners' medal to polish.
Missing out on the FIFA World Cup has surely galvanised his desire to triumph in Europe this season as well. Many queried how he would react to Sweden falling short in the play-offs, but the Paris No10 has bounced back with a vengeance. "You [the media] assumed 'Ibra' would be affected," commented Blanc after the Malmo native's next game, a 3-0 win at Stade de Reims in which Ibrahimović buried the third goal. "Behind every great player is a great competitor. He's a born competitor; when he finds a competition, he is there. He wants to win, he wants to score and he does it in the end."
Never more so than this term, it would seem. Asked recently if this is his best-ever campaign, he paused for a moment, the cogs a-blur inside that famously inscrutable mind, before shooting back: "No ... because it isn't finished." And with a smile, he strode out the door. The centrepiece in Paris's glittering array of talent, Ibrahimović has won over the sceptics, the critics, and even won a whole new army of admirers for his recent autobiography. Now it is time to win the UEFA Champions League – and he knows it.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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