Writer’s Note: Unfortunately, WordPress does not recognize the “c” with an accent mark, so Bojan Krkic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s names will not include an accent mark above the ” c.”
It is easy to overreact and overanalyze after one match and assume that whatever happens in that match will become a trend throughout the season; therefore, in evaluating Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s performance in the Barcelona – Sporting Gijón match on Monday night, hyperbole will not be the overall sentiment of this piece.
As for the match itself, Barcelona never let Sporting Gijón play, and Sporting did not really seem interested in retrieving the ball back from Barcelona. Barça had 74% of the possession in each half, but uncharacteristically, Barça constructed their three goals from corner kicks rather than from open play. Bojan Krkic, deputizing for Thierry Henry, who Pep Guardiola decided to rest after playing in the UEFA Super Cup on Friday, performed at a high level with a goal and numerous individual runs that menaced the Sporting defense all night long. While Bojan brought the Camp Nou to its feet, Seydou Keita was the man of the match with his tireless work rate in the midfield and his ability to get his head onto free kicks and crosses. His near post flick on from a corner kick in the 18th minute directly led to Bojan’s headed goal on the back post, his header from a corner kick in the 42nd minute scored the second goal for Barcelona, and another header in the 67th minute hit the post. While Barcelona did not produce the sparkling display of football like most expect them to do on every occasion, they took the belief out of Sporting and thus could play around with the ball for ninety minutes.
With Thierry Henry resting and Lionel Messi in Argentina preparing for World Cup qualifying against Brazil, the limelight was squarely focused on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and how he would fare in his first match in the blaugrana shirt. With Pedro Rodríguez on his right and Bojan Krkic on his left, Ibrahimovic had more than capable forwards on the wings, but they were not Henry or Messi. His first significant touch came in the fourth minute when Pedro sent him a through ball into the box, which got him behind the Sporting defense; however, he was positioned at an acute angle and he scuffed his shot trying to blast it past Sporting goalkeeper Juan Pablo. In the 30th minute, he made a run into the box and faked a shot, causing two defenders to go to ground in anticipation. Open for the shot, he tried a cute, swerved shot towards the near post, and Juan Pablo saved it easily. A diagonal run in the 40th minute set up a shot for Ibrahimovic, but Juan Pablo made a routine save. In the first half, Ibrahimovic seemed a bit sluggish and lax in attack, but that could be directly attributed to his lack of match fitness. He injured his hand while on a US tour with Inter Milan and did not play a competitive match until the Joan Gamper Trophy against Manchester City on August 19.
Ibrahimovic raised his energy level and involved himself more into the attack in the second half. In the 66th minute, Eric Abidal sent a long ball to the edge of the penalty area, and Alberto Botía, a central defender on loan to Sporting from Barcelona, harassed Ibrahimovic, but he was able to fight him off and restart the attack. His willingness to scrap and clash with the defense gave a rise to the Barça faithful. In the 74th minute, on an average cross by Pedro, Ibrahimovic was able to rise over Botía and deliver a solid header, but it headed toward Juan Pablo’s grateful hands. Pedro’s cross hung in the air, so Ibrahimovic had to supply most of the power for the header, and he accomplished that feat quite well. His aerial ability is one of the attributes that differentiated Ibrahimovic from his predecessor Samuel Eto’o.
Then in the 82nd minute, Ibrahimovic scored his first goal for Barça. On another corner kick, Xavi took it short to Dani Alves, and after he crossed the ball into the box, it took a slight deflection off Sporting defender Grégory’s head, and Ibrahimovic executed the diving header at the back post to perfection. It was almost a carbon copy of the first Barcelona goal where Seydou Keita’s near-post flick sent the ball to the back post, and Bojan headed home the opening score. It was not the most attractive goal he has ever scored, but at that moment, it must have been sweet for him to score in his first match for Barça.
There were a few flashes of brilliance by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, including the goal late in the contest, but he will not be putting this performance in his scrapbook of the best ninety minutes in his career. The chemistry among his fellow forwards lacked that something extra, but anyone expecting the gears to shift seamlessly in the first match hold unrealistic expectations. While he did not play his best, scoring in his first match was important because now he does not have to face the pressure of a goal drought to start his season. Ibrahimovic would admit that he still needs time to adapt to life in Spain and the Barça system. When the international break concludes and Henry and Messi join Ibrahimovic in attack for a string of games, Pep Guardiola will see if the infinite attacking potential of this trio will culminate into consecutive La Liga titles. A straightforward win and an Ibrahimovic goal is just the start that Barcelona needed to launch a successful La Liga campaign.