By Robin Bairner
Despite being one of the most prodigiously talented footballers of his generation, Paris Saint-Germain forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic still has a blemish on his CV.
The Swedish forward, who is noted for his substantial opinion of himself, has a list of honours that most footballers would die for. Ibra is most noted for winning eight successive league titles with four different clubs in three different countries, but he has also finished as Serie A’s top scorer twice and has been named as the league’s outstanding player on three occasions. In addition, he has twice been named in Uefa’s Team of the Year, having been nominated five more times.
Some critics question his ability to shine in big matches, though, with his scoring record – or lack thereof – in the Champions League knockout stages frequently flagged, particularly by the English media, as an argument to depreciate the player’s worth.
“That's the way it is with the English,” he told the press after the match. “If you score against them you're a good player, if you don't score against them you're not a good player.”
In 2012, the PSG forward went some way to converting the cynics. Against Arsenal at San Siro in the Champions League last 16, the 31-year-old was magnificent as erstwhile club AC Milan crushed the Gunners 4-0 in one of their most memorable performances of recent years. That Ibra only managed to get on the scoresheet via the penalty spot was something of an injustice from what was a virtuoso showing.
Then came Euro 2012, a tournament in which he would be named by Uefa as one of the outstanding forwards. His eye for the spectacular was certainly to the fore as he scored an otherworldly goal against France, though Sweden would ultimately be eliminated at the first hurdle as they lost to England, whom Ibrahimovic would go on to slaughter only five short months later.
Such performances on the big stage were unavoidable, and even the most ardent anti-Ibrahimovic critic would have to confess that these were of the top level.
In the past there have been big-stage disappointments, of course. He turned in a wretched performance for Juventus against Arsenal in the 2005-06 quarter-finals as the Old Lady failed to find the net over two legs, and he will be forever infamous for covering fewer yards than goalkeeper Victor Valdes as Barcelona crashed out against Inter at the semi-final stage in 2010.
Now, though, Ibrahimovic has the unique opportunity to silence any remaining doubters, of which there are now few. He stands at Paris Saint-Germain as a beacon of their hopes, having been arguably their marquee signing of the QSI era. He is the spearhead of their attack, the man they are most reliant upon to produce game-winning moments. This is, in essence, his team.
This reverence comes at a price, though. It is in the biggest moments that Ibrahimovic is expected to shine brightest, and that means primarily in the Champions League.
So far he has not let his new employers down. He is the top assist-maker in the competition to date with five and he was on target himself twice in six appearances, maintaining the strike ratio of roughly one goal in every three games he has enjoyed throughout his career at this level.
Now is the moment he needs to step it up, not only for the sake of his club, but for the sake of his reputation as a modern great. If he is the man to fire PSG past Valencia and deep into the competition, perhaps reaching Wembley and the final itself, he will surely be regarded as one of the outstanding figures of his generation.
It matters not that Ibrahimovic has found the net previously in some of the biggest club matches such as El Clasico and the Milan derby, until he finally performs on Europe’s greatest stage, history may not remember him for the genius that he is.
This is Ibra’s time to cement his greatness.
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