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Jul 19, 2009

Ibrahimovic makes surprise appearance in WFC opener

When Jose Mourinho announced his starting lineup before Inter Milan's 5-4 penalty kick loss to Club America in Palo Alto, Calif. on Sunday afternoon in the World Football Challenge opener, the absence of Inter's Zlatan Ibrahimovic was notable. It seemed to confirm that the widely reported swap involving the mercurial Swedish forward and unsettled Barcelona star Samuel Eto'o was indeed a done deal. Turns out, it only reveals how little the result mattered to the charismatic coach. Ibrahimovic was one of Mourinho's many second-half substitutions, and his participation makes one wonder if he's headed to Spain after all. If the deal was indeed close to being finalized, it is highly unlikely Inter would have risked the star getting injured in what for them was a glorified preseason friendly. For Club America, a game against one of Europe's best is a much bigger deal. So it's not totally surprising that America treated the opening stages more like it was a World Cup final. Las Aguilas are also in their preseason. But their conditioning was clearly further along than that of the sluggish Italians, as they threatened the four-time defending Serie A champs on counterattacks from the outset. In the 28th minute, America should have gone ahead on one such opportunity. However, prolific Paraguayan striker Salvador Cabanas missed an open goal after a slick passing sequence involving captain Pavel Pardo and Enrique Esqueda. It was the best chance for either team in the first half, although Pardo hit the crossbar on a free kick 10 minutes later.

WFC schedule
Sunday
Club America vs. Inter
Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, Calif.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com Tuesday
Chelsea vs. Inter
Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com Wednesday
AC Milan vs. Club America
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com Friday
AC Milan vs. Chelsea
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
8 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com Sunday
AC Milan vs. Inter
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com Chelsea vs. Club America
Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
Inter, which was without captain Javier Zanetti and first-choice keeper Julio Cesar, didn't seriously threaten Club America keeper Armando Navarrete until Las Aguilas had taken the lead on Juan Carlos Silva's sensational volley five minutes into the second half. That's when the gulf in class, if not fitness, became evident. Even after Ibrahimovic was introduced in the 55th minute, Inter's most impressive player was probably 18-year-old Mario Balotelli, who had come on late in the opening stanza. It was Balotelli's pinpoint corner that set up Ivan Cordoba's equalizer on an easy back-post header. Then, with the game back on even terms and his team wilting in the 80-degree sun, Mourinho began substituting liberally. Unlike Inter, Club America coach Jesus Ramirez fielded close to a full-strength XI (Mexican national team goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was the most notable omission due to Gold Cup duty), but he did take off Pardo and Cabañas as the game deteriorated into a hack-fest late. But the move provided some unintentional comedy after the final whistle, as Ramirez apparently didn't know the game would be decided in PKs if it ended in a tie. Pardo and Cabañas are two of his best penalty takers. America ended up winning the tiebreaker after Patrick Viera missed his penalty for Inter, but the real story of the game was Ibrahimovic's inclusion. During the U.S. broadcast of the match, Fernando Palomo of ESPN Deportes reported that the deal was done pending the players agreeing to personal terms with their new clubs. But does the fact that Ibrahimovic played mean the deal is dead? And if it is, will Barca resume its chase of Valencia striker David Villa? We might find out by the time Inter plays Chelsea at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Tuesday (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com). Just don't assume too much from the starting lineup. Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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