Zlatan vs. Barcelona: Why No Love Will Be Lost at Camp Nou
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint-Germain will travel to the Camp Nou next week having conceded two away but still crucially in the tie at 2-2 following an absorbing first leg.
The Swede scored a controversial 79th-minute equaliser and then set up Blaise Matuidi’s injury-time equaliser to cap a remarkable final 15 minutes.
Pre-match, plenty was being made of the fact that Ibrahimovic was facing one of his former clubs, particularly that he only spent one season there and was largely considered a failure despite scoring 16 goals in 32 appearances. His inability to score goals against the biggest sides in the Champions League has attracted criticism, but a goal and an assist against arguably the greatest current side in club football to help the capital club salvage a draw should put rest to that.
However, the towering striker will be as unpopular as ever next week when the two sides meet at the Camp Nou after his goal that many feel was offside. No love lost there then between Barca and Ibra?
Throughout the match Ibrahimovic blew hot and cold, and made a number of errors of judgement as PSG pushed forward looking for the opening goal. His overall contribution, though, was vital for Carlo Ancelotti’s side on the night, and the Swede warranted the fuss that was made over his overturned suspension.
It was a typical performance from the Swede, looking to give himself centre-stage at every possible opportunity, but coming up big when it really mattered and showing a selfless side when turning provider for Matuidi late on. At one point he even took a free kick from teammate David Beckham that was in Beckham territory.
Barcelona director of football Andoni Zubizarreta questioned UEFA’s decision to halve Ibrahimovic’s suspension pre-match, an opinion he will no doubt voice again before the second leg following their former star’s first-leg performance.
Intriguingly, the battle at the Camp Nou looks heavily weighted in Ibrahimovic’s favour given that Tito Vilanova’s side will now have to contend with so many suspensions and absences at the back. With Javier Mascherano stretchered off injured at the Parc des Princes and suspended even if he isn’t hurt thanks to his first-leg yellow card, the Catalans are short of options at the back.
There is a big chance that Alex Song will have to fill in alongside Gerard Pique given Marc Bartra’s lack of big-match experience for now. Another option would be to move Sergio Busquets into the back four with Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Adriano all of questionable fitness for a match of this size.
Ibrahimovic will be the focal point of the PSG side once more and will fancy his chances against a makeshift centre-back pairing and a defence where three players (Dani Alves, Pique and Jordi Alba) are carrying yellow cards from the first leg.
However, the 31-year-old won’t be the only threat.
The pace of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura and possibly Jeremy Menez caused Barca problems in the first leg, Ancelotti will look for more of Ibrahimovic’s quality in holding up the ball to bring his teammates into the game.
The second leg now looks remarkably to different to how it would no doubt have looked if Ibrahimovic’s original suspension had stood. The Swede would have only become operational for this second leg, and PSG arguably might not have found themselves in this position had Ibra been absent in Paris on Tuesday.
With the pressure now off of the prolific striker to score heading to his former stomping ground, Ibrahimovic can concentrate on turning provider, as he has done so often this season in the Champions League, to ensure that his side progress at the expense of his former employers.
PSG are at a disadvantage in that they shipped two away goals to Barcelona at the Parc des Princes, so head to the Camp Nou needing to score. But with Javier Mascherano ruled out and star man Lionel Messi likely to either miss out or not be fully fit for the clash, the scenario is playing into PSG and Ibrahimovic’s hands.
The Swede can’t expect a warm reception in Barcelona next week, but he has given the capital club a fighting chance of beating the Spanish giants over two legs. Now, he has to demonstrate why UEFA overturning the ban was so important for Les Parisiens over two legs given that the job is only half done.
The Champions League last eight is hardly the time for experimentation. But with Barcelona facing an injury crisis at both ends of the pitch, there is little choice. They will likely be forced to play at least one or two players either out of position or lacking in experience.
Ibrahimovic has to capitalise on that weakness and come back to haunt his former club.
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