Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A magician on the field and character off it, he has entertained the world for a decade with his brilliance as a footballer and his outrageous antics as one of the most recognizable personalities in the sport.
Despite the arrogance and swagger that has stirred several waves of controversy over the years, the Swede has backed it up with stellar performances throughout his career. There have always been persistent questions marks over his ability to perform in the biggest matches, especially in the latter stages of the Champions League however, in recent years he has begun to banish the naysayers by playing arguably career best football.
On his day he is virtually unplayable and is easily not only one of the best players in the world today, but arguably one of the finest of his generation. A six foot five giant of a man with tremendous presence, power and agility on the pitch while possessing the deft touch, guile and flamboyance of a player blessed with greater natural balance and poise, he is simply a once in a generation player.
His remarkable physical and technical attributes make him potentially the most complete forwards the game has ever seen.
Yet, for all his talents and exploits as a player, Ibra’s loyalty has been questioned as over the course of his career.
He has played for no less than seven clubs- Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona, AC Milan and PSG. Wherever he has been, he has been prolific in front of goal, where even at Barcelona he was a consistent if not prolific scorer, even if he had several bust ups with Pep Guardiola due to the perception that Ibra’s individual style of play did not suit Barcelona’s passing philosophy.
So, there's one big question. Where did Ibra have the most impact? With Malmo and Ajax not among Europe's top five leagues, the contenders will be automatically trimmed to five.
After the huge waves made at Ajax where Ibra first entered the public's consciousness, the Serie A giants splashed 16 million euros to land the striker. He formed a formidable partnership with Frenchman David Trezeguet, as the Bianconeri won back to back Scudetto titles in 2004/2005 and 2005/2006 which were later stripped as part of the Calciopoli scandal. He struck 26 times and overall blew hot and cold where his reputation as a choker in big matches began at the then Delle Alpi. However, at one of Europe’s finest clubs he proved he could mix it with the best and laid down the foundations for a career at the top very top level.
After Juventus were relegated to Serie B, the Swede transferred to rivals Inter for roughly €25 million and helped secure their first league title in 17 years with a record points tally of 97 during 2006/2007.
It was at the blue half of the San Siro where Ibra's all round game began to blossom as his role as the fulcrum of the Nerazzurri's attack was charcterised by clinical finishing, excellent link up play and incisive passing.
Having scored 66 goals and laid 32 assists in 117 appearances during his trophy laden three years that included three consecutive league triumphs, Ibra left a lasting impression at Inter Milan. He was more than just a striker, as he was the major creative force behind a notoriously dour and defensive team. Nonetheless, several titles were won under Roberto Mancini with Ibra being one of the major driving forces behind their success which was blighted only by the lack of progress in Europe.
In a somewhat curious career move, Samuel Eto'o and 46 million euros were transferred to Inter as the Catalan outfit landed the Sweden International in return.
As Thierry Henry began to wind down, Lionel Messi continued his rise to superstardom and as a consequence Ibrahimovic was forced to play second fiddle, especially as manager Pep Guardiola was not a big fan of his selfish style of play. Despite the tension with Guardiola, a return of 21 goals and 13 assists in 45 appearances in all competitions reads a very good return even if it does not justify the astronomical outlay for his services. One season was enough for both parties as Barcelona signed David Villa to support Messi, who had shifted into a false nine role.
The red and black half of Milan was the next destination as Ibra was shipped out on loan for the 2010/2011 season. With something of a statement to make after his somewhat acrimonious departure from Barcelona, a career renaissance of sorts began with a stellar season removing a doubt about his quality.
He steered the club to their first league title in seven years, convincing Milan to pay €24 million for his outright purchase. The following season was a personal success as he claimed the Serie A top scorer gong and going on to net 35 goals and claim 14 assists in just 44 appearances to be back among the planet’s most lethal strikers.
However, a remarkable run of 8 consecutive league triumphs in three different countries came to an end in 2011/2012 as they failed to defend their title against Juventus. Financial troubles led to his departure to the nouveau riche Paris Saint Germain in the summer of 2012.
An exciting new chapter in the French capital was on the horizon as the highly ambitious PSG constructed a very formidable team for the 2012/2013 season. As the face of the club, Ibra did not disappoint as he blasted another 35 goals and laying 11 assists as he helped end another league title drought as it was PSG's first league win in 19 years. With the arrival of Edinson Cavani, either a fearsome strikeforce is in the works or the departure of Ibra is on the cards as history has shown so often.
So, where has Ibra played his best football? It is fair to say he is in career best form at present, however, having only been at PSG for one season, it seems difficult to choose PSG. There remains his two seasons at AC Milan or three seasons at Internazionale as his career at Juventus never scaled the heights of Ibra's achievements at both Milanese clubs, while the less we talk about his stint at Barcelona the better.
Taking into account the relative lack of support that Ibra had at Inter offensively, as opposed to the healthy support at AC Milan in the form of Robinho, Kevin Prince Boateng, Stephan El Shaarawy, Alexandre Pato, Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Cassano and Filippo Inzaghi. With an excellent strike rate at Inter that is made all the more impressive by the fact that he had to take on opposition defences all on his own, especially in the champions league as the team was defensive in nature.
His ability to shoulder the considerable load in attack and still deliver goals to help win titles in trying circumstances during his three year stint at Inter was probably the making of him as a professional player at the top level as he has proved to have blossomed in subsequent years. His performances maybe more impressive during his time at Milan and PSG, however the real character of Ibra as a player shone through at Inter.
His combination of exceptional individual performances which led to three consecutive league titles, is probably the most memorable and notable achievement of his career as he enjoyed stability and an identity as the magician among a group of toilers.
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