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Sep 15, 2009

Ibrahimovic primed for warm welcome

Funny how coverage of football seems to be going end over end, in a repetitive loop which sometimes is filled with self-fulfilling prophecies.

Take Barcelona's trip to Milan on Wednesday, for example. Ever since the balls bounced so that Inter would start their Champions League campaign against the very same side they did the summer's most controversial deal with - exchanging Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Samuel Eto'o and a load of cash - the big question has centred on how the mercurial Swede would be greeted at the San Siro. He was the supporters' icon for three title-winning seasons but also a constant source of grief for what often appeared to be a selfish attitude.

Ironically, the same traits that helped him become Inter's most unstoppable player during that time could only be applied domestically since his failure to produce on the biggest stage had also become a frequent talking point.

Such has been the media frenzy - tiresome and predictable, but hey, try having to fill so many broadsheet pages and broadcast hours every day - that the goals Eto'o and Diego Milito scored to beat Parma on Sunday were somehow seen as a "reply" to the couple that Ibrahimovic and Lionel Messi had scored the previous day against Getafe, despite the fact that Inter may have been the furthest thought in the minds of the two Barcelona players while they were doing their stuff on the Getafe pitch.

The pressure surrounding Wednesday's game is so obvious, manifesting itself in the disrespect accorded to Inter-Parma as a mere warm-up exercise, that anything short of a full-blown riot whenever Ibra has the ball would probably be seen as a letdown. And of course Ibrahimovic himself, having sarcastically done the "I can't hear you" gesture to his own fans just a few months ago after scoring against Lazio (following some barracking for sloppy play), will be expected to celebrate in some outrageous way, if he scores.

He may not want to do an Adebayor, run the length of the pitch and slide on his knees in front of the Inter fans, first of all because there would be plenty of them all around him - the game, after all, is at the San Siro - and secondly because his joints may never recover from such a trauma, considering the traditionally bad shape of the Inter pitch, which he surely remembers.

It would be extremely funny, then, if both the fans and Ibrahimovic ignored each other: the self-fulfilling hype spread in the past month or so by the blood-thirsty media would deflate in a heartbeat, or perhaps find other way to express itself.

Ironically, Ibrahimovic's departure may have helped Inter become a better team; a subject that has already been discussed at length in Italy. In the previous couple of years, regardless of whether Roberto Mancini or Jose Mourino were managing the side, Inter's main weapon had been the long punt towards the Swede, who would then often create something out of very little in one-on-one situations.

Teamwork would be evident in bringing the ball up field in other instances, or in defending, but rarely were Inter as entertaining as the collective skill value of their players warranted. Without Ibrahimovic, and with the addition of ball-playing central defender Lucio, Inter are now playing a better brand of football, coupled with their now traditional strength.

Curiously enough, a strong physical presence now seems to be Juventus' trademark, too. At times, last year, it appeared to be their only weapon, along with Alessandro Del Piero's revival. Times have changed and Juve have added a few touches of class that have taken them to the top of the table on full points alongside Genoa and Sampdoria. Another impressive display in Rome, where they had already dispatched Roma fifteen days earlier, saw them emerge with a 2-0 win over unlucky Lazio, who must still be encouraged by the way they exchanged blows with the visitors.

Juventus look solid, menacing and skilful, a trait that had already emerged under the unfortunate Claudio Ranieri, but seems to have been accentuated by the better skill factor under his successor Ciro Ferrara. There seems to be a wave of growing enthusiasm among their fans, although the hype many in the media dispense when dealing with anything bianconero may actually come back and hinder, rather than help, the team.

Take Diego, for example. The Brazilian is possibly the summer's best signing for a top side, along with Eto'o and Milito, and he has displayed excellent control, vision, industry and passing, coupled with a deceptive strength that he probably developed by playing in the Bundesliga. The way he held off John-Arne Riise while scoring Juve's first goal two weeks ago made him an instant hit with fans and highlighted his uncommon set of skills, but the hype soon got out of hand and it was refreshingly surprising to hear Antonio Di Gennaro, the former Italian international turned TV analyst, strike a cautious note live on air when the hype-pumped question "is Diego a great player, a superstar or a word-class phenom?" was posed to him.

Di Gennaro, after a brief pause, replied "right now, a great player", a TV set-hugging response if there is one. A calmer, reasoning voice putting a brake on the outsized expectations on the Brazilian, who was more subdued at Lazio on Saturday before going off injured - not the first time since his arrival that his body has betrayed him. He won't appear on the European scene for a while, to the detriment of Juventus' bid for a long run in the Champions League which seems entirely possible, but hey, we cannot be distracted by looking too far ahead, can we?

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