Zlatan Ibrahimovic Is Overdue a Big Performance In a Game That Matters


Dare to doubt. Challenge yourself to remember the last truly big game that Zlatan Ibrahimovic owned in the manner his reputation as a once-in-a-generation talent demands.

There hasn't been one this season - not if we class a big game for Zlatan as one against a major European force or a domestic outfit with a realistic chance of challenging his club for the title that is.

Was there an example last season? Perhaps his double against Nantes in the French League Cup semi-final, but for a name like Zlatan shouldn't those kind of heroics should be considered regulation by now? League cup semi-finals are late-night snacks for the likes of Ronaldo and Messi after all.

How about Zlatan's season before that, 2012-13? Well not with his club, aside from two strong showings against Marseille - both of which he scored twice in. The best case there would be his preposterous quad-trick for Sweden against England, but can we justify an international friendly as a really big game?

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There's no doubting Zlatan scored a meaningful goal in that game, but come on - England circa 2012 were hardly a defining force and there was nothing riding on the game whatsoever. Six England players made their debut that night. So no, that doesn't count.

Now we're back to the 2011/12 season. Zlatan is in Milan colours, but the closest we get to our hero owning the night is a predictable Zlat-trick against Finland in a World Cup qualifer before the season even gets started. That's Finland. They're no San Marino, but they're no 2011 Spain either.

The 2010/11 campaign is a similar story. And then, in March 2010 we finally find it - a brilliant Zlatan double for Barcelona against Arsenal at the Emirates. It's the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final. It's a seriously big deal and Zlatan comes to the party ready to...well, party.

First came a sumptuous lob to open the scoring, and then a ripsnorter into the top corner after being slid through in front of wall of Gooners. It was all about Zlatan that evening. 

Ok, so Lionel Messi scored four in the second leg to put Zlatan in the shade a touch, but the fact remains our hero delivered that night in north London.

Nearly five years on, the question becomes why he hasn't done so in a big game since? It's not as if Zlatan hasn't been given the stage to perform on.

Chronologically ordered, here are the most notable chances that have gone begging since that night at the Emirates:

2010: Champions League semi-final v Inter (2 legs)

2011: Champions League last 16 v Tottenham (2 legs)

2012: Champions League quarter-final v Barcelona (2 legs)

2013: Champions League quarter-final v Barcelona (2 legs)

2015: Champions League last 16 v Chelsea (2nd leg pending)

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We'd be cruel to add the second leg of Sweden's World Cup play-off loss to Portugal in 2013, as Zlatan scored twice and the blame lies purely with Cristiano Ronaldo for being ridiculous. That said, might we include the first leg away?

The point is how should this impact our view on Zlatan. There's no disputing his extravagant talent and the fact every football fan on the planet would love their club to be his next. It's not just because he guarantees you a title - Zlatan is unique, he's special and we can't take our eyes off him.

For all his qualities, however, he hasn't found a way to impact the meaningful matches for some time now. The latest evidence came against Chelsea in Paris, where two big chances went begging and Zlatan was mostly resigned to a bit-part in the production as more mobile players frantically rushed around him.

Maybe it would just take one big moment to shift the momentum - one chance to fly in, like the late header Thibaut Courtois tipped over the bar. Or maybe Zlatan is just not equipped to thrive when the intensity is as high as the moon and everybody expects him to catch it.

Soon enough he'll be in London. We'll be reading about why Zlatan is ready to break Chelsea hearts and how Gary Cahill is not equipped to handle him. This could be Zlatan's year, they'll write. How on earth will Chelsea stop him?

The funny thing is there's no evidence to support any of that, not in relation to a meaningful game with the eyes of the world watching, but still we dare to believe. It's about time Zlatan gave us a decent reason to again.

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