Enigma: One that is puzzling, ambiguous, or inexplicable. The word derives from the Latin meaning of a mysterious puzzle. You must wonder whether one of the great philosophers of the time came up with the word after predicting the existence of a tall, Swedish footballer roaming the land, hundreds of years later.
For all the adjectives used to describe Zlatan Ibrahimovic, enigmatic is the most pertinent. Puzzling, often. Ambiguous, frequently. Inexplicable, certainly. The mercurial Swede posesses an almost unnatural, natural ability, combining an imposing physical stature with the style and grace of a ballerina. His touch and footwork defy his 6ft 3″ height, and as well as scoring and creating an abundance of goals, he is capable of some of the most ludicrous pieces of skill imaginable, fit to illuminate any game.
However, that is only one side of the Ibrahimovic coin, and beyond the glorious highlight reels of wonderful goals and trickery, lurks an inconsistent, exasperating figure, a man who offers delight and despair in equal measure, and divides opinion like almost no other player on the planet. Never more so was this indifference so fittingly illustrated than during the Nerazzurri’s 2-0 victory of Lazio at the San Siro on Saturday night.
Without a victory in three games, il Biscione’s lead at the top of Serie A had been cut to seven points by a resurgent Milan. Three points were necessary to regain the confidence of a weary looking team, who were making heavy weather of securing a fourth consecutive Scudetto. The first half was a tepid affair, a tense and disjointed Inter lacked the urgency of champions, failing to seize the initiative and impose themselves on the Biancocelesti.
Often a beacon of how Inter play, Ibrahimovic epitomised the lacklustre nature of the Nerazzurri, too often he was wasteful in possession, and spent large periods of the first hour of the game sloping around in his sultry demeanour. Such mannerisms do not sit well with the commonplace football fan, where passion and desire are a pre-requisite for any terrace idol. The half-time whistle was greeted with howls of derision from the Inter tifosi, unsatisfied and underwhelmed at a team about to be crowned champions. Into the second half and following another move which broke down at the feet of Ibra, the growls of disapproval once again rolled down the terraces, this time, aimed directly at their talismatic front man.
Ibrahimovic retaliated with a finger-to-lip gesture, suggesting the crowd keep their thoughts to themselves. Approaching the hour, it was time to retaliate with his feet, doing so with typically individual brilliance to deliver the goal Inter needed. Picking the ball up 25-yards out, he slalomed into the box and skipped past David Rozenhal before lashing an unstoppable drive into the far corner past Fernando Muslera. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, the 21st goal of an impressive season, putting Ibra joint top of the Capocannoniere. Goals aren’t the only currency Ibrahimovic deals in, and Inter’s second goal was party to his sublime guile and vision, threading a perfectly weighted ball behind the Lazio backline for Sulley Muntari to latch onto, control and finish, extinguishing the hopes of le Aquile, and putting an end to any lingering doubts as to the whereabouts of this years Scudetto.
Post-match and Ibrahimovic was reticent to criticise the crowd for the jeers. He told reporters; “The crowd motivated me further. I scored and did my job on the field. The rest does not count.” However, Jose Mourinho pleaded for more understanding from the Nerazzurri faithful; “It’s not right. There are moments of frustration during the match. The fans want more and for better performances – so do we – but we are doing our best” Opinion divided, but it is fair to say that the main talking-point which polarises views at Internazionale is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Lazio game was a perfect microcosm of the player and his career, flirting between frustratingly ineffective and frightfully brilliant.
On a regular basis this season, Jose Mourinho has lauded his star man as the best player in the world. Such proclamations from Mourinho should be treated lightly, but he does have ample personal reason to heap such praise on Ibra. His goals and influence have been fundamental in asserting Inter at the top of Serie A. Indeed during his three seasons at the Guiseppe Meazza, he has notched 53 times in 84 outings, a record comparable with any striker on the continent. Outside of Italy, there is still scepticism about just how good Ibrahimovic is. Six goals in 22 Champions League outings is a poor return for a striker of his calibre. A dismal showing against a patched up Manchester United backline in their Champions League tie did little to dispel the perception that he goes missing on the big occasion. Such yin and yang elements of his game are unlikely to deter potential suitors this summer, should he decide to seek pastures new. His recent hints at a move away from Inter may or may not have contributed to the stick he received on Saturday, but such abuse is unlikely to persuade him to stay. For the moment, Ibrahimovic’s form is ensuring another league winners medal shall soon be adorning his mantlepiece, what will happen in the summer, like the player himself, will be much harder to predict.
Mino Raiola, the player’s agent admitted on Tuesday that his player would listen to certain offers should they materialise; “Zlatan isn’t a prisoner. If an offer came from another club at the top level then it isn’t a matter of money but a sporting decision. Ibrahimovic loves Inter, just as he loved Ajax and Juventus but offers have to be weighed up.”
The gossip columnists have been quick to line up replacements should Ibra move elsewhere. Diego Milito did his prospects no harm with a hat-trick in the Derby della Lanterna. The Genoa hitman has now struck 19 times since his move from Real Zaragoza, and could replace fellow Argentinian’s Julio Cruz and Hernan Crespo, who are seemingly surplus to requirements.
Continuing the Argentinean striker theme, moves us to Carlos Tevez. Manchester United’s failure to conclude a permanent deal for Tevez has led to the man himself admitting his future is likely to be away from Old Trafford. With Mourinho keen to replenish his striking stock, an Inter move is plausible, with Tevez’s high-octane work-rate a favourable attribute for Mourinho.
Off the field and the verbal tit-for-tat between Inter and arch rivals Milan continues to rumble on. Some months ago, Mourinho wound up the Rossoneri, and Massimo Ambrosini in particular, by saying Milan would end up winning nothing this season. Ambrosini saw this as disrespectful, and having seen the Nerazzurri’s lead cut to seven points, responded by saying he hoped Inter blew the title and that Mourinho should apologise if they did. In turn, Mourinho has said he will apologise should Milan pip his side to the league, however took the opportunity to further incite Ambrosini by referring to an incident at the end of Milan’s Champions League triumph of 2007 when Ambrosini unfurled an offensive banner aimed at Inter fans; “I remember very well that Ambrosini once offended ten million Interisti and he has never apologised for that. He doesn’t have great moral authority speaking like this.”
Ambrosini, biting the bait, then produced a wordy riposte on Milan’s official club website, sniping back at Mourinho; “I am surprised and embittered by how Mourinho, who’s usually precise in his verbal communication, commented with such superficiality on my declarations of yesterday, which were not at all meant to create polemics or provoke, and I absolutely do not accept morality lessons from this man when, two days after the episode of the banner, I apologized to Inter’s players and fans. I showed the kind of moral values which he, with little attention or knowledge of the facts, put in doubt.” The ball is now back in Mourinho’s court, and with Inter sitting pretty following the Lazio win, he is sure to deliver another of his trademark tirade’s. Look out Massimo.
Not to be outdone, both club’s illuminati got in on the act. President Berlusconi suggested that had Adriano’s handball goal been disallowed in the Derby della Madonnina back in February, the gap at the top of Serie A would have been smaller. President Moratti came back and explained; “I’m not scared of Milan.” before questioning the amount of penalties Milan have been awarded this year (12). The if’s and but’s continued to rain in from Milan when Vice-President Adriano Galliani piped up; “If Inter had lost Ibrahimovic for as many games as we did Kaka, the Scudetto would have been a lot different. Inter are more consistent, but we are playing better football.”
This weekend sees Inter travel to Chievo, with Milan entertaining Juventus. An Inter win coupled with the Bianconeri beating Milan would see Inter confirmed as champions. The battle would be over, but the war of words has only just begun.