Early Doors

Still think Ibrahimovic is rubbish?

Early Doors

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic vaults over Thomas Vermaelen

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

For so long, the big Swedish striker's appeal abroad has been as baffling to most people in Britain as Everybody Loves Raymond and spray-on cheese.

Despite winning league titles every single year - wherever he has been - for the best part of a decade, many on these shores have staunchly refused to be convinced he is much more than a mouthy big-game bottler who never produces against teams from England, both at club and international level. Even his brace at the Emirates Stadium while playing for Barcelona two years ago did little to convince his detractors.

He has long been regarded as the human form of that tropical bird from the Pixar film Up — leggy, big-beaked and highly-prized for reasons which are not really made clear.

There are certainly plenty of grounds to justify that viewpoint — most recently his listless showings for Sweden in a friendly at Wembley back in November and for Milan against Tottenham this time last year.

However, his performance last night in Milan's 4-0 dismantling of Arsenal at the San Siro emphatically answered all of those who had him pegged as the most over-rated player in world football.

Early Doors is one of those who invest more time at weekends watching Serie A than is strictly healthy (it beats being dragged around Homebase on a Sunday afternoon, that's for sure), so it feels a certain sense of smug vindication to have finally seen Ibra unequivocally deliver with Tyldesley and Townsend in town. Townsend in particular seemed to sceptically regard the striker's excellent scoring record in Italy as though he was a cardinal being told by Galileo that the Earth was not the centre of the universe.

Against Arsenal Ibrahimovic was full of guile, craft and effort as he orchestrated the Gunners' biggest ever defeat in a European away game.

Rather than impatiently stomping around the final third waiting for chances to land at his feet as many have come to expect, Ibra dropped wide and deep in search of the ball and looked to feed onrushing team-mates at every opportunity.

After conceding Ibra's penalty to all but wrap up the tie, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny admitted: "When you're playing against Ibra, he's up there as the best striker I've played against."

Last night was one of the rare occasions that Arsenal were able to field what many would consider their first-choice defence, but they were made to look distinctly ordinary. The normally reliable Thomas Vermaelen in particular had a night to forget after finally returning to his favoured centre-back position.

Arsene Wenger pulled no punches in his post-match analysis, saying: "We were never in the game, we were very poor offensively and defensively, and it was shocking to see how we were beaten everywhere.

"It was our worst performance in Europe by far, there was not one moment we were really in the game.

"Let's be realistic, we don't play in dream world, maybe there is a two per cent or five per cent chance statistically; realistically we are out of this competition."

It is worth acknowledging that, as good as Ibrahimovic was last night, the player who once turned down a trial at Arsenal as a youngster was made to look good by a visiting side which faltered all over the patched-up pitch in the face of the current Serie A leaders at their most cohesive.

The Rossoneri's main man was marginally offside as he galloped away to set up Robinho's first goal, but his artful roll of ball under foot before teeing up the Brazilian to head Milan 2-0 in front and his subsequent tormenting of Arsenal after the break was a joy to behold.

Still, after finally giving ED the opportunity to lavish such praise upon him, and with the tie all but sewn up, he'll probably be rubbish in the second leg.

- - -

The lustre of the Champions League has faded until next week, with the Europa League now coming to the fore with a unique thrill.

Both Manchester United and Manchester City are suffering extended hangovers from their elimination at the Champions League group stage by having to compete in Europe's secondary competition on Thursday nights.

But, as the old saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade - then pour in some vodka and cheer up, for goodness sake.

Both clubs are playing illustrious opposition  - Ajax and Porto respectively - who have also fallen on hard times on the European front. If these same ties had been in the Champions League then they would be painted as a far more appetising prospect than they are now.

This is an opportunity for them to do something special, a rare chance to tick a box that neither would otherwise be eligible to do.

For United manager Alex Ferguson, this is the chance to complete an unprecedented clean sweep of trophies. Having already won every domestic honour with United as well as the (in roughly decreasing order of prestige) Champions League, Cup Winners' Cup, UEFA Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, this is a chance for him to claim the one trophy he has never won.

For Red Devils stalwart Ryan Giggs, too, he has the chance to achieve what no other player has by winning every competition in which he has competed. If United win the league again this year then Giggs's personal haul of 13 titles will match that of Arsenal, and to bag a full house of winner's medals in the same season would be the an extra flourish.

Whether or not United take it seriously enough to achieve such feats remains to be seen, but the opportunity is there to create another piece of history at Old Trafford.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "(Randy) Lerner believes there are universal transferrable methods both clubs can employ. (McLeish) is always looking for any advantage he can get and he felt this was an ideal opportunity to exchange ideas with his American counterparts at the Browns." — Aston Villa chief executive Paul Faulkner reveals that manager Alex McLeish is to visit NFL side Cleveland Browns for a two-day brainstorming session. Sadly, the possible introduction of shoulder pads came too late for Richard Dunne, who has been ruled out for eight weeks after fracturing his collar bone.

FOREIGN VIEW: A Chinese court has sentenced four referees, including a former World Cup match official, to up to seven years in jail for involvement in match-fixing and gambling. About 60 local players, referees, coaches and officials were put on trial in December following a two-year investigation into match-fixing that has blighted the country's struggling leagues in recent years. Lu Jun, a referee at the 2002 World Cup, was sentenced by the Intermediate People's Court in the northeastern city of Dandong to five years and six months for accepting bribes, Xinhua news agency said. He was also ordered to surrender personal property worth 100,000 yuan.

COMING UP: It's a Europa League triple-whammy this evening. Follow live coverage of Ajax v Manchester United (18:00), FC Porto v Manchester City (20:05) and Stoke v Valencia (20:05).

Before all that we will have Zonal Marking's in-depth analysis of Norwich's win over Swansea from the weekend, Euroscout takes a look at Ajax's Christian Eriksen, Roy Keane reveals all about his sporting heroes and The Fantasist will be filing its latest Premier League injury report.

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