Is Zlatan All Talk At This Point?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had done all of his talking. In the build-up to LA Galaxy's meeting with LAFC the Swede had espoused his brilliance to the world and explained why he was the best player in MLS and not Carlos Vela.
"By far [I'm better], because if he's in his prime. How old is he? Twenty-nine," said Ibrahimovic. "And he's playing in MLS, and he's in his prime. When I was 29 [I was in Europe]. Big difference."
By the end of Friday night, Ibrahimovic had provided an emphatic answer to his critics. The Galaxy beat LAFC 3-2, and while Vela may still lead the league's scoring charts with 21 goals, behind him on 16 is Ibrahimovic. The Swede's hat-trick against LAFC inspired his side, and his opener was a prime example of his technical skill and deadly finishing.
The next chapter of the 'El Trafico' derby was in the record books, and Zlatan was once again at the heart of things.
No one expected the 37-year-old to be a wallflower. Zlatan has made a career from outlandish statements and even released a book that mashed fact and fiction together. Such an approach has divided fans. Some celebrate one of the league's best players and the presence of a character that wants to bring a dash of charisma, while others find him tedious and self-aggrandising.
As well as his big talk there have also been on-field controversies. A meeting with Real Salt Lake in April saw Zlatan clash with ex-Manchester City defender Nedum Onouha. It started when Ibrahimovic pulled Onuoha to the ground off the ball — for which he received a yellow card. Ibrahimovic's rage then manifested in verbal abuse and continued right up until the final whistle.
"He came in to apologise after the game because from 60 minutes in, he's saying to me he's going to do me, he's going to hurt me for that game," Onuoha told reporters. "And this is the guy who's the face of MLS, as he calls himself, but this is the way he plays on the field. So I don't care. Someone comes in and tries to do that to me – you don't say that on the field. I don't care. I'm not going to accept his apology. It's unacceptable."
He engaged in a similar war of words on Friday with LAFC's goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel staff. Abdel was frustrated about an aerial challenge involving Zlatan and Mohamed El Monir. The former Manchester United striker glanced twice at El-Monir before leaping up and catching him in the face with an elbow. It left the defender with a fractured skull which will require surgery.
It is moments like that contribute to the debate surrounding Zlatan. In pure playing terms, he has delivered memorable moments on the field, often in derbies.
"That [derby] atmosphere keeps me alive, that keeps me on my toes," said Ibrahimovic. "Hopefully it will be a nice atmosphere like that on Friday. I think it will be. It gives you energy it gives you adrenaline."
The problem begins when those Friday night lights are turned off. Last season, the Galaxy failed to qualify for the playoffs after losing to the Houston Dynamo on the final day of the season. Houston entered the match in poor form (having won just two of their previous 16 leagues games) and were somehow able to reverse a 2-0 scoreline to win 3-2.
This season, the Galaxy are comfortably above the playoff line at the halfway stage, but their tactical approach remains an issue.
The team has quality in midfield and attack, but their plan often involves getting the ball to Zlatan as quickly and often as possible. Although their style can produce results, it can also leave them one dimensional in attack. After Zlatan, the Galaxy's next highest scorer has three league goals.
Whether such a simple idea is sustainable enough to win MLS Cup remains to be seen, but a trophy has to be Zlatan's aim while in the league.
Against LAFC, the Swede has undoubtedly won the battle so far, but for him to cement a legacy befitting his claims, he will need to win the war and lift a trophy. And no amount of talk will change that.