For Zlatan Ibrahimovic a year must seem a heck of a long time. Less than twelve months ago, the Swede was being unveiled as the newest star at the Camp Nou, such was his talent that Joan Laporta and Pep Guardiola were prepared to let stalwart Samuel Eto’o depart in the opposite direction.
Fast forward and you find a very different picture. Ibrahimovic, far from setting the Camp Nou alight with dazzling displays, has rather fizzled out-and found himself eclipsed by Barcelona’s youth products Pedro and Bojan Krkic. Barcelona fans – who tend to love their own more than most – have rather taken to these new boys over the big money Swede, who found himself jeered by disgruntled home fans last season.
Such has been the sense of disappointment in the Swede’s performances, that less than a year on, the word is he is on his way out – possibly with a move back to Italy, or onwards to the Premier League.
With David Villa in the bag, there is even more competition for places among the Barcelona front-line, and Ibrahimovic is hardly flavour of the month. Plus there is the economic situation to contend with, Barcelona could easily service some of their well-documented fiscal problems with a big money sale.
With the bigger names practically indispensable, and unwilling to go, Ibrahimovic could certainly fit the bill of a sell-able squad member – though whether Barcelona would be willing to write off such a large loss after just one year is less than certain.
Yet despite a poor first season – and incidentally, Ibrahimovic is not alone in struggling when they first arrive at a big club – it is worth remembering the reasons why Pep Guardiola signed Ibrahimovic in the first place. For all the talk of his poor record at the highest level, Ibrahimovic’s amalgam of height, technique and finishing, is rarely seen around the world of football.
As Fabio Capello, his former boss at Juventus, once said:
“When Zlatan arrived in Italy he was a rough diamond. But now he is very complete, the best striker in the world and impossible to mark inside the penalty area.”
Guardiola, a man known to be a fan of Patrick Kluivert from his playing days, realised what Ibrahimovic could bring to a Barcelona line-up big on talent, but short on inches. While it represented a gamble, and a costly one at £40m, which has not yet paid off, there is still much that Ibrahimovic can bring to this Barcelona team over the next few seasons.
Nor too, is his record that appalling for a striker in his first season. 16 league goals, including the winner against Real Madrid, plus two goals against Arsenal in the Champions League are more than what Dimitar Berbatov and Karim Benzema managed for Manchester United and Real Madrid last season, and the same as Eto’o managed at Inter Milan.
But the simple truth is that while Barcelona expected Ibrahimovic to take them onto the next level, it simply, and understandably, proved beyond him. Whether the fault lies with the player or with the club is irrelevant, the important question is what happens next.
If he goes, then the mystery of Ibrahimovic, a player capable of brilliance and banality in equal measure, will move on to another suitor who believes they can get the best out of him.
If he stays, then it is up to the player himself, who when perhaps freed from the shackles of the expectation of being the newest star in the Barcelona galaxy, may yet live up to those expectations once more.
With Thierry Henry gone, David Villa likely to be installed on the left side and Lionel Messi on the right, there is still conceivably a place for him in the Barcelona line-up. But with the likes of Pedro and Bojan, not to mention Villa and Andres Iniesta capable of slotting seamlessly into this forward line, the key for Ibrahimovic will be keeping himself in there.
It is not beyond him, as one talented enough to play regularly for some of Europe’s finest coaches, but after a slow start to his Barcelona career he has a lot of catching up to do.
But don’t rule him out just yet. Because if Guardiola can find a way of unlocking his undoubted talent, then perhaps the Barcelona fans may yet learn to love Zlatan Ibrahimovic.