The battle of the total footballers

Tomorrow night marks the reunion of two of the most talented attackers to have ever graced the Eredivisie: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Rafael van der Vaart. The former Ajax team mates have been at odds since an international match between Sweden and Holland in which Ibrahimovic injured van der Vaart, ending his game. It was claimed afterwards by the playmaker that the Swede had shown no remorse, and that he was “a psycho”, a remark that offended Ibrahimovic, who promptly stated that he could no longer play in the same team as van der Vaart, and was soon transferred to Juventus. Since the incident the duo have both progressed their careers, but are yet to face one another, and are preparing to do battle in the San Siro tomorrow night, with Ibrahimovic in the red and black of Milan, and van der Vaart in the white of Tottenham.

My earliest memory of the duo is from the summer of 2002, when they lined up in a friendly for Ajax against Norwich at Carrow Road. They were both prodigious, youthful and raw, but gave the home defence a torrid time, and combined well for the game’s single goal, scored by the Swede after a great cross by the Dutchman. That sunny July afternoon, I was mesmerised by their quick feet, great technique and all round ability, and could see that they were destined for greatness, but never expected that their careers would take such different paths.

It was obvious from the beginning that Ibrahimovic was a volatile character; a hugely talented player but one with the ability to frustrate. He was frankly too good for the Eredivisie, even in his youth, and a big money move was always on the cards. He exit from Amsterdam  was unscrupulous but the outcome was to be expected. His spell in Turin was one of success, but was blighted by his agent cooking up a story that Juventus had turned down a €70m bid from Real Madrid, which turned into a publicity stunt to increase his client’s value. Ibrahimovic’s chapter with the ‘Old Lady’ ended after the club were relegated after being found guilty in the Calciopoli Scandal in 2006, and he soon jumped ship to Internazionale. His most prolific spell thus far of his career was spent in the Blue and Black stripes of the Nerazzurri, where he managed 66 goals in his 116 games. It was this form that persuaded Barcelona to piece together a package to lure him to Catalonia, by offering €46m plus Samuel Eto’o, a deal that in hindsight Inter got rather the better end of. Despite being the first Barcelona signing to score in his first 4 appearances, Ibrahimovic struggled to establish himself at the Nou Camp, and after he claimed that Pep Guardiola had not spoken to him since March, and the  signing of David Villa, he realised that his Spanish adventure was fading fast. He was loaned to AC Milan, where he has flourished, and is excelling back in Serie A, and will be full of confidence tomorrow night.

Van der vaart on the other hand took up Ibrahimovic’s goal scoring responsibilities when he fled Amsterdam, but during his Ajax career struggled for fitness, making just over 140 games in his 6 seasons at the club. He too left the club under a cloud after being criticised for being overweight, and for spending too much time enjoying the Amsterdam nightlife with his fiancee of the time. In 2005 he left the club, moving to Hamburg SV, and soon became the team’s talismatic captain. At times during his spell in the Bundesliga, it became apparent that the team were over reliant on him, in a similar manner to Steven Gerrard at Liverpool as they struggled when he was injured. He signed for Real Madrid in August 2008, for €13m, and big hopes were pinned to his arrival at the Bernabeu. His spell in Spain lasted slightly longer than Ibrahimovic’s, but was just as unhappy, as he was frozen out of the team after the arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Kaka in the summer of 2009. He signed for Spurs at the very last minute of the 2010 summer transfer window, and has gone on to be arguably the best signing of this season. He has found a new lease of life at White Hart Lane, and with the plethora of attack minded players surrounding him, he is able to weave his magic as he pleases. At a reported £8m he must be regarded as one of the bargains of this century, and his goals this season have often proved to be priceless. He alongside Gareth Bale, has seamlessly become the emblem of the North Londoners’ Champions League campaign, and his role in the hole behind Peter Crouch, has allowed him to cause mischief in no man’s land.

Lastly their projected inputs of Tuesday night’s game must be discussed. Ibrahimovic is widely known to go missing during the biggest games, and last season infamously covered the same amount of ground in the Champions League semi final as his goal keeper, Victor Valdes. He has the ability to produce something out of nothing, and will be a nightmare for Spur’s patched up defence to repel, but it is never possible to gauge which Ibrahimovic will be strutting the pitch. Van der Vaart has been instrumental in Spurs’ maiden Champions League campaign, and I believe that he will play an integral part of the contest. It will be interesting to see how Milan deal with him, whether they decide to man mark and harry him whilst he has possession, or allow him space to work his stuff. Out of the two I believe that van der Vaart performs better under pressure, and that that is why under his huge price tags, Ibrahimovic struggled in Spain, and in the most important games. The Swede has had a lot of money spent on him, and whilst at Barcelona had an improbable buy out clause written into his contract of €250m. With his outlandish value, it is logical to claim that he must be one of the best players in the world, and therefore able to dominate any game. I believe that he will show his talent in fits and starts tomorrow night, perhaps wowing the crowd with a moment of outrageous skill, or by scoring from an impossible angle, but the Dutchman will be victorious in this battle.

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About htedbaker
I'm an englishman in America. Avid football fan/ aspiring sports journalist.

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