The alice band of brothers
Tall but not a targetman, quick of mind but not of body, incredibly expensive but arguably not first-choice – critical descriptions that could match two players at world-class football clubs, both of whom have been outshone this season by a younger colleague who allies a formidable work ethic with dazzling talent. Who was your first thought? The enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic fits the bill, but the words above could also describe a certain Dimitar Berbatov.
Both Berba and Ibra find themselves exposed to the unforgiving eye of transfer speculation this summer after failing to match the stratospheric levels set by Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi respectively. Outgoing Barcelona president Joan Laporta recently saw fit to scotch reports that Ibrahimovic was available for transfer. Sir Alex Ferguson followed suit by insisting Berbatov is still part of his plan to regain the Premiership title next season. The Bulgarian will be relieved to hear it, but the Swede’s future is less certain whatever Laporta may say.
Barca and Chelsea certainly both deserved their league titles, but perhaps the main difference between Barcelona and Manchester United this season was that Messi, unlike Rooney, stayed fit for the entire campaign. If it had been the other way round, it may well have been United and Real Madrid celebrating instead. United fell one point short and Real would probably have done likewise had they not effectively given up once they heard that Barca were comfortably dispatching Valladolid on the final day.
United’s two league encounters with Blackburn encapsulate the Berbatov dilemma quite neatly. Alongside Rooney in the first at Old Trafford, he struck a superb opening goal. The image used by the BBC for the second at Ewood Park says everything about Berbatov’s unsuccessful attempt to fill the void left by Rooney’s late-season injury.
Over at the Camp Nou, even the supremely confident Ibrahimovic must be concerned about his chances of hanging around to help defend Barca’s La Liga title and win back the Champions League. Ibra’s goal record in his debut La Liga season is good but more recently, the statistics are damning and tell no lies either. In their final four games in April, Barca struck five goals. Three of these came against bottom club Xerez and two went past Ibrahimovic’s former team-mate Julio Cesar in 180 minutes of Champions League semi-final football against Inter Milan.
Pep Guardiola put his trust in Ibrahimovic to lead the Barca line against his previous team in both matches, the second of which was built up as one of the most important in the club’s history. After all, when would the next opportunity arise to win the European Cup at the Bernabeu? Ibrahimovic failed to spark Barca, though, often slowing their play or losing possession just when the Blaugrana looked set to make a breakthrough.
When the Swede was substituted, it rubbed salt in his wounds that his replacement, his young competitor for the centre-forward role Bojan Krkic, nearly had the chance to celebrate what could have been one of the most famous goals in the club’s history. Bojan may have been denied by a handball decision given against Yaya Toure, but at least he had found the net.
When May arrived, Ibrahimovic found himself sidelined and Bojan took his place. Barca fired fifteen goals in their last four La Liga games to see off the challenge of Real Madrid and retain their title. Bojan scored three of them, all of which came from that inside-right channel that Samuel Eto’o used to call home. Whether sent clear by Xavi at El Madrigal, again at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan or by Dani Alves at the Camp Nou, the end result was the same.
The goals scored by Bojan in those vital last few weeks of a thrilling finale to La Liga’s title race demonstrate exactly why Ibrahimovic must be worried. They each held all the hallmarks of another Spanish centre-forward, one who possesses a seat on the plane to South Africa, one better equipped than Bojan to deal with the pressure of a regular starting spot for the champions and one who now plays for Barcelona. David Villa is the player Barcelona were trying desperately to sign last summer and now they finally have their man.
In the glorious way they began those tricky away games against Villarreal and Sevilla, Barca showed why they do not need a targetman. The signing of Ibrahimovic supposedly meant they could now play a different way. A new plan B, if you like. The problem is that you only need plan B if plan A doesn’t work. With Bojan, Pedro, Villa and Messi competing to fill the three attacking positions at the Camp Nou next season, plan B would be best consigned back to Serie A.