Although Real Madrid made most of the summer headlines by starting a new “Galactico Era,” Barcelona and Inter were involved in arguably the biggest blockbuster of all, when the Catalans shipped Samuel Eto’o and €46 million to the San Siro in exchange for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The consensus on the Barcelona side was that Eto’o had worn out his welcome in Catalonia and that his off-the-field antics and selfishness were too much even for his 129 goals in 200 games at the club to over shadow.
What made the move ever so puzzling was that the player Guardiola so badly wanted hardly had the reputation as the perfect citizen. Although Zlatan’s talent was unquestionable, the giant Swede was perceived to have been selfish and was involved in more than a few scuffles at Inter, including with the fans.
For Guardiola, the possibilities and versatility brought by Ibra outweighed any negatives. The prospect of being able to play “route one” football by lobbing the ball into the 6’5” former Juventus man was an option non existent with Eto’o.
Barcelona clearly did not wish to change the brilliant passing game built up over the years, but in times of emergency, such as the brutal Champions League tie against Chelsea last season, Ibra was expected to bring a “plan b” to a Barca side sometimes void of ideas against the most physical teams.
Guardiola also loved the passing game of Ibra, always capable of flicks and tricks to help unlock defenses, something Eto’o, a pure finisher, was not known for.
Skeptics of the move felt that Zlatan had never proved himself in the biggest games, particularly in the Champions League. Meanwhile Eto’o had won everything imaginable at Barca, scoring goals in two Champions League Finals (2006 and 2009).
Upon his arrival, Ibra appeared desperate to lose the label of “big game bottler” when he stuck a brilliant volley past Iker Casillas in the first massive test of Barcelona’s season in El Clasico against Real Madrid.
The former Ajax star passed his next big test, by finally showing up in the knock out stages of the Champions League, and more importantly against English opposition, when he scored both of Barcelona’s goals in a 2-2 draw at Arsenal.
Despite a fantastic record on the season (20 goals in 32 games in all competitions), it has not all been rosy for Zlatan. After a brilliant start, he has gone through very long barren spells in front of goal, missing a plethora of easy chances in the process, while injuries have caused their share of problems as well.
Eto’o, meanwhile, has not had the greatest of seasons either at Inter, hitting just 16 goals in all 38 competitions. Although his goal scoring record is a shadow of the better-than-a-goal-every-other-game mark he set at Barca, there is the feeling that the Cameroon captain is starting to hit his best form during the money stages of the season.
In contrast, during his first season at Inter, Ibra scored just 15 times in 38 matches as the Nerazzurri ran away with the Scudetto in a watered down Serie A following the Calciopoli Scandal in 2006-2007.
During Eto’o first season at Barca, he hit 28 goals in 45 games, including 24 in La Liga, helping the Blaugrana to the title.
The question now becomes: what signing has been better? Today, we will see the two stars go head to head to find out. Ibrahimovic has struggled mightily with injuries all season but should be fit for the match in his old home in Milan, where the two teams drew 0-0 during the group phase.
Eto’o has been hitting his stride and doing so in the most important matches, including sinking Mourinho’s old club Chelsea in the Champions League, Fiorentina in the Copa Italia, and Juventus in the Derby d'Italia, although Eto’o himself would admit his finishing has been off.
Should Ibra fail, and Samuel succeed, would the trade be considered a bust for Barcelona?
In reality, more than one season will be needed to judge both signings, but Eto’o’s haul of three league crowns, two Champions League winner’s medals, and a Copa del Rey will be tough to beat, although Ibra can easily point to his three straight league titles won Italy and the fact Inter often operating through him, where as now Wesley Sneijder has emerged as the fulcrum of the side.
One thing that Eto'o can point to was his impeccable understanding with Lionel Messi, something Ibra has yet to achieve. At times the two have not looked comfortable together up front, while it is also worth noting that most of Messi's best games this season, including three of his four hat tricks and the Clasico win in the Bernabeu took place with the Swede.
Eto'o also has the advantage seeing as Barcelona also shipped €46 million for Ibra, a price tag he has certainly not lived up to.
Although time is needed, the winner of this epic Champions League matchup, will have bragging rights for one season at least.