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Real win UCL through defensive resolve

Tactics Board
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 By Michael Cox

Is this Zlatan Ibrahimovic's last chance to win the Champions League?

Alison Bender tells you what to look forward to in the upcoming UEFA Champions League clash between Chelsea and PSG.

Over the past decade, there has been no more successful player, in terms of domestic competition, than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This season, he is set to win Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain -- they're currently 23 points clear -- and finishing as the league's top scorer -- he's currently 20 goals clear.

This means he'll have won won nine league championships and five top scorer awards over the past 10 seasons. Going back further, he won a pair of titles each with Ajax and Juventus, though the latter two were revoked in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal.

Though his is an astonishing record, Ibrahimovic's domestic achievements remain heavily scrutinised. For example, some argue he made Barcelona a worse side during his one season at the Camp Nou, and others claim Ligue 1 isn't competitive enough to take seriously.

The biggest mark against his name, though, is his lack of success at European level. Despite all those league titles, he's never won the Champions League and, in fact, has rarely come close. This season might be his final chance.

For a serial league champion, it's downright bizarre that Ibrahimovic's record in the Champions League is quite so poor. He's the only player to have scored for six different sides -- Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, PSG -- in the competition and yet rarely progresses far.

Since 2006 he's reached the Round of 16 four times and the quarterfinals four times. Only once, though, has he reached the semis. That was during his sole season with Barcelona, who lifted the European Cup in 2008-09 and 2010-11, but not during Ibrahimovic's spell at the club in 2009-10.

In mitigation, the Swedish forward contributed heavily in that season's Champions League, netting a crucial equaliser at Bayer Leverkusen when Barcelona were struggling, and smashing in two goals in a 2-2 draw at Arsenal.

In the semifinal, however, against the eventual champions and his old club Inter, Ibrahimovic struggled, especially in the second leg when he was hauled off by Pep Guardiola as Barcelona chased the game.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 22 goals in all competitions for Barcelona but left after just one season.

In truth, Guardiola got things the wrong way around that day: He should have tested Inter's initial high defensive line with quick, mobile players and then introduced Ibrahimovic as a Plan B when the Italian side dropped back and parked the bus.

Barcelona's failure was related to Ibrahimovic, therefore, but wasn't entirely his fault. Nevertheless, the image of Inter manager Jose Mourinho heckling Guardiola and Ibrahimovic on the sidelines, undermining the Barca manager's influence and getting into the player's head, remains arguably the clearest memory of Ibrahimovic's Champions League experience.

His European reputation has also suffered because he's been eliminated by a former club in four of the last six seasons. This is primarily a natural consequence of having played for so many major European teams, of course, but it emphasises the idea that Ibrahimovic's European record isn't very impressive, and his old clubs are thriving without him.

But why, exactly, has he struggled to make his mark in Europe?

The idea that Ibrahimovic is simply a "big-game bottler" is clearly untrue. There's a frustrating tendency to consider only major knockout matches as "big", but Ibrahimovic has performed in big league games wherever he's gone.

He came off the bench, half-fit, to score the final-day goals that clinched the league title for Inter in 2008, then volleyed home the winner in his first Clasico a year later. In 2010, he moved to Milan and scored the winner in his first derby against Inter. In his first season at PSG, 2011-12, he scored three times in two matches against rivals Marseille. The list goes on.

There are probably two major reasons why European football has proved more difficult for him.

First, Ibrahimovic is relatively unique amongst Europe's elite forwards, in that he's primarily a penalty-box forward, rather than a quick attacker who excels on the break. Two-legged Champions League football is often played on the counter.

For example, it's easy to recall the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Franck Ribery, Luis Suarez and Arjen Robben leading and finishing counter-attacking moves in recent years. Ibrahimovic simply isn't that type of player and tends to drop deep to orchestrate passing moves, encouraging others forward.

Ibrahimovic's style lends itself to teams that dominate possession and push opponents back to the edge of their own box. He's excellent at getting on the end of crosses and his incredible acrobatics are perfect for tight spaces when he needs to finish moves quickly. If he gets the ball 50 yards from goal, he's still a good player -- and he's not slow, as such -- but he's not the type of counter-attacker, who will tear teams apart from deep.

He's scored eight goals in 37 Champions League knockout games, compared to 38 in 79 in the group stage. It's roughly a drop from one-in-two to one-in-four, which is partly because of the standard of opposition, but also because that difference in standard affects Ibrahimovic's ability to influence games.

Since joining Paris Saint-Germain, Ibrahimovic has scored 136 goals in 166 games in all competitions.

The other reason is that Ibrahimovic is simply slightly too individualistic and the Champions League is usually won by cohesive, harmonious sides. At domestic level it's possible for a single individual to drag a team towards a title, particularly those who are efficient at breaking down weaker sides, which he is, unquestionably.

Those players don't tend to succeed, however, in the Champions League, where major sides are notable for their universality: The forwards help to defend, the defenders start attacks. You won't find Ibrahimovic leading the pressing or dropping back to keep the side compact. He's a brilliant individual but perhaps not the type of player you built a brilliant team around.

Ibrahimovic's relatively poor record in European competition will unquestionably tarnish his wider legacy. While supporters in Serie A and Ligue 1 recognise his amazing consistency, those leagues aren't consumed heavily outside Italy and France, certainly not compared to La Liga or the Premier League.

Therefore many other fans, entirely unfairly, view Ibrahimovic as somewhere between a "highlights player" and a "flat-track bully," when realistically nothing could be further from the truth.

Does the man himself care about his legacy? Probably. When Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter conducted a poll to find the country's greatest-ever sportsman, Ibrahimovic was fuming after being beaten by tennis legend Bjorn Borg.

"Thank you, but to finish second is like finishing last," he said. When asked how he would have voted, he said he would have been "number one, two, three, four and five." He may have finished top, had he scored a Champions League-winning goal because, rightly or wrongly, players who have the most significant legacies are those who perform consistently in the biggest -- and most-viewed -- matches.

Few remember, for example, that Zinedine Zidane was often inconsistent throughout domestic league campaigns, because he scored three goals in World Cup finals and, in 2002, volleyed the most famous goal in Champions League history.

Ibrahimovic's contract at PSG is coming to an end and he'll turn 35 later this year. Thus, he might not be playing in the Champions League next season: Offers from the likes of China and MLS will surely come in and, while there are suggestions Manchester United are interested, joining them might not mean Champions League football either.

It's now or never, then. Ibrahimovic is one of the greatest players of his generation but, unless he performs in this season's Champions League knockout stage, he might not be remembered that way.

Michael Cox is the editor of Zonal Marking and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

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