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Zlatan earns chance to sting Barca

FOX Soccer News: Did Zlatan Ibrahimovic warrant UEFA's two-match suspension?
FOX Soccer News: Did Zlatan Ibrahimovic warrant UEFA's two-match suspension?
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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On Tuesday, Barcelona will come face-to-face with their biggest mistake.

With his ponytail dangling over his Paris Saint-Germain jersey, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will preen and leer at them over his crooked nose. If given any chance at all, the man also known simply as “Ibra” will punish his former club during the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarterfinal (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET).

In the summer of 2009, Barcelona bought striker Ibrahimovic from Internazionale. They had tired of the sight of their own striker Samuel Eto’o, in spite of the 30 league goals he’d racked up in the prior campaign. Two of Eto’o’s seasons had been wracked by injury, so they shipped the Cameroonian and $60 million to Italy to land the tall Swede. Including fees, Ibra’s transfer cost a whopping $90 million, the second-most expensive transfer ever after Cristiano Ronaldo’s $131 million move from Manchester United to Real Madrid that same summer.

The reasoning went that the then-28-year-old Ibrahimovic, one of the world’s best forwards, would add a new dimension to Barcelona’s tiki-taka style. Eto’o had been highly effective playing high up-field and latching onto and tucking away the through balls created by the short, quick passing style, but Ibra could play as a target man and would create his own chances. He would be less reliant on the overall success of the vaunted system.

It all ended in tears. Ibrahimovic’s self-centered play, while imbued with a generous helping of genius, didn’t mesh with Barca’s holistic approach. His brash and confrontational personality was an even worse fit in the low-key locker room.

Ibrahimovic has never been one to paper over his opinions. His production was strong over the first half of the season but when it fell off in the second half and the development of Lionel Messi mandated that he start playing centrally, pushing Ibra into a sideshow role, the latter spoke up. “You bought a Ferrari but drive it like a Fiat,” he told then-coach Josep Guardiola.

ELITE EIGHT

FOX Soccer's Jamie Trecker analyzes the Champions League quarterfinal round.

Guardiola had no use for such pushback from a player, and refused to pander to the entitlement Ibrahimovic felt he deserved. Feeling unloved, Ibrahimovic grew petulant and provoking. He allegedly told Guardiola “you have no balls” in front of the team and threatened to beat him. Over the course of six months, as Ibra was further marginalized, the two talked just twice.

Ibrahimovic ended the season with a very respectable 16 league goals and nine assists but was still seen as a disappointment. Barcelona admitted its mistake and offloaded him to AC Milan on the cheap: just $32 million, and the Italians didn’t have to pay up until the end of the season. They even got an opt-out clause.

Barcelona’s president Sandro Rosell allegedly told AC Milan CEO Adriano Galliani that the deal was “the worst piece of business I have ever conducted in my life.” To fill the hole left by Ibrahimovic, the Catalans bought David Villa – a carbon copy of Eto’o, who’d been the much better fit after all – from Valencia for $52 million, making the Zlatan deal a $108 million loss for the club.

Funny thing: Ibrahimovic returned to his world-beating self in Milan. He was the undisputed star in Serie A and his play commanded a $30 million move to PSG last summer, as part of the nouveau riche French team’s ploy to conquer Europe. That also made Ibra into the most costly player ever: he has commanded an astonishing $245 million in transfer fees alone.

Which brings us back to Tuesday and this most intriguing of matchups. Ibrahimovic has shown himself to own a vengeful sort of personality throughout his career. Barcelona didn’t suffer his kind of rowdiness lightly and will no doubt fully recall the many insults he lobbed their way after his departure.

Both teams struggled on the weekend. PSG limped to a meek 1-0 win over defending champions Montpellier. Barcelona stumbled to a 2-2 draw against Celta de Vigo. But neither team will be terribly concerned. PSG, as technical director Leonardo has put it, “is built for winning in Europe, not in France.” The club’s ambition is to do well continentally, not domestically, and it has invested its energies accordingly. The Catalans, meanwhile, only played four starters on Saturday, clearly conserving its own vigor for Tuesday’s game, having long since squared away the La Liga crown.

With Zlatan’s suspension reduced from two games to one following a hard tackle in the first leg of PSG’s round of 16 win over Valencia, he will be present for both games against his old club.

And that club will be the favorites against the European neophytes PSG. But Ibrahimovic still has a bone to pick with them. And, as Barcelona found to their chagrin, and angry Ibra is a dangerous man indeed.

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