Let the Zlatan-watching commence.
You cannot call yourself a football fan, and come to Paris without seeing Ibrahimovic.
The Swede, just turned 32, is playing probably the most magical football on the planet right now. This is the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era, but Ibrahimovic is so good that he’s being mentioned in the same breath even as those two. That’s something.
The last year has been a brutal one for teams coming up against the 6ft 5in striker. When “Ibra” gets you between his teeth, he doesn’t let go. Thus his four goals for Sweden against England last November – including that goal – and four more in Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-0 thrashing of Anderlecht in the Champions League two weeks ago.
Next to get in the ring, on Saturday, were Nice.
If the south coast team found the conditions of a wet and cold Paris night less than ideal, it soon got hotter in the Parc des Princes. This 1970s ground has one of the best atmospheres in European football, with the tribunes of Boulogne and Auteuil behind each goal competing for decibel levels. All match, and all-standing.
A few years ago a player of Ibrahimovic’s calibre playing for PSG would have been almost inconceivable, but – apart from the Qatari cash, and the increasingly-better players around him – you can see why the Swede likes playing here.
|Head for heights: Ibrahimovic scores his third to wrap up a 3-1 win and put PSG four points clear in Ligue 1 [AP]
The boy from the rough immigrant-heavy Malmö suburb of Rosengård would be at home among the mecs of Auteuil, even with many of them and their counterparts from Boulogne having been banished in a crackdown on hooliganism (you can imagine the young Ibrahimovic, who happily admits to stealing cars in his youth, joining them in their exile from the Parc).
He gave them reason to begin their chants of “Ibra! Ibra! Ibra! Ibra!” soon enough. Within seconds he had opened up space for Edinson Cavani to be released on goal by Javier Pastore, only for play to be pulled back for an infringement.
The threat grew as Ibrahimovic, playing a patient and economical game in contrast to the hurrying style of his strike partner Cavani, got closer to scoring. A chest-down and deflected stab over in the 12th minute, a dummy to allow Cavani to have a strike ruled out for offside 12 minutes later, and a grubbing effort under the keeper and into the net, again ruled out, shortly after.
He then looked like he might just get angry after having his shirt tugged as he ran though on Nice keeper Luca Veronese, with the referee waving away the appeals.
With six minutes to go to half time, the inevitable – and you really feel that with Ibrahimovic, it is inevitable – happened.
A long, dipping cross from Gregory van der Wiel from the right, and under it, a huge Swede. No fancy backflick needed this time, Ibrahimovic’s studs steering it past the challenge of Veronese.
Cue one of the only stadium announcers in football who avoids giving a twee feel to proceedings. “Zlataan!” he yelled into his mic, answered by a roar of “Ibrahimovic!” from the crowd, four times. Every goalscorer gets that treatment. What a place to play.
He wasn’t quite done for the half. In injury time, he covered ground like a velociraptor to win a free kick outside the box, before heading just wide from the cross.
In the second half, Ibrahimovic chose to do damage in a different way. No longer alone up front, he dropped deep and took a short pass in space from Maxwell, who sprinted to join nearly everyone else in the box. Let Ibra do it.
He did. The striker’s ball forward over the top was perfectly placed at Cavani’s feet. An inch further and it was keeper’s ball. As it was, Cavani got a touch, was brought down, and Ibrahimovic stroked the penalty to the right of Veronese for 2-0.
I think I want to do better than last year, of course that's what I'm aiming, and my job is to do better.
Their superiority seemed to make PSG casual, and a spell of pressure from Nice led to a goal from centre-back Nemanja Pejcinovic with 20 minutes to play. It was hard not to immediately look at Ibrahimovic, alone in the other half, to measure his disapproval.
If he disapproved, he channelled his anger effectively six minutes later. Lucas was brought on as a substitute, and within seconds had provided a regulation cross from the right that Ibrahimovic nodded home for his hat-trick, and his eighth goal in Ligue 1 this season.
There was time for him to dispute an injury-time offside call before the final whistle, after which he stayed on the pitch with the matchball to salute each side of the ground. The French now have a verb, Zlataner, literally meaning “to Zlatan” or to crush in a Zlatan-fashion. Nice had joined the growing list of teams Zlataned by the Swede.
“I think I want to do better than last year, of course that’s what I’m aiming, and my job is to do better,” Ibrahimovic, who scored 30 goals in 34 games last season, said into Al Jazeera’s mobile phone after the match.
“To see that I’m still developing and to work hard…no, I want to do better than last year but the important thing is that the team win and we’re ahead now because Monaco lose points, so that’s good.
“The team is better today than the last year, it’s all about knowing each other and playing more time together. The more you play together, the better it is. And we’re more confident now, last year we were champions and this year it’s easier to play.
“I think we play now with three central midfielders and I think that’s the big change. For me, I play like I played last year I like to move around and play my game.”
Bigger tests than Nice or Anderlecht will come if PSG and Ibrahimovic are to go one better than their Champions League quarter-final defeat on penalties to Barcelona last year. Could they even lift that trophy?
If Zlatan keeps playing his game, nothing is impossible.
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