| Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring a sensational goal against England |
Stockholm: Just when the England fans started ironically serenading the pony-tailed Zlatan Ibrahimovic with “you’re just a s--- Andy Carroll”, the Swedish forward moved up a gear, adding to his first-half goal with three gems in the last 15 minutes, including a strike that defied geometry let alone belief.
England were stunned into silence.
A great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, Ibrahimovic’s first was an instinctive poacher’s finish, his second an emphatic half-volley and his third a 30-yard free-kick. The match-ball was his, victory was Sweden’s. England had not conceded a hat-trick since the marvellous Marco van Basten gave Tony Adams nightmares in 1988. It needed something special to go one step beyond Van Basten’s brilliance. It needed the mighty Zlatan.
It was this fourth goal that will linger long in the memory, that will be saluted around the world. It was a reminder of the joy of football, of the breathtaking transferral of a ball into a net. Ibrahimovic was out on the right, his eyes fixed like a hawk on Joe Hart’s poor clearance dropping towards him. The goalkeeper was out of his area, his goal unprotected, but the angle was still ludicrously tight.
It needed technique, imagination and vision to attempt what Ibrahimovic did next, meeting the ball with a sensational 30-yard overhead kick and sending it flying in an elegant arc into England’s goal. A sceptical audience has often awaited Ibrahimovic when facing English teams in Europe or internationally. For a player who has scored only four times in 1,536 minutes against English teams before Wednesday, his next four required only 90 minutes. St George knelt in reverence before the Swede with 10 on his back and 10 in his ratings.
Ibrahimovic’s fourth can be talked about as one of the greatest in the history of the game. It deserves mentioning in the same breath as Roberto Carlos’ swerving free-kick at the 1997 Tournoi de France, lauded with similar gusto to Ryan Giggs’ weaving run through Arsenal’s defence in 1999 and praised to the heavens alongside Zinedine Zidane’s hooked volley in the Champions League final at Hampden Park.
However astonishing, Ibrahimovic’s bicycle kick still cannot eclipse two classics in particular, famously Van Basten’s volley against USSR in the final of Euro ’88 and Diego Maradona’s odyssey through English ranks in the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup. When the great goals are debated, the magical moments of Van Basten and Maradona carry greater weight because of the significance of the occasion. This was only a friendly.
For those familiar with Ibrahimovic’s career, he has scored an arguably more exceptional goal, a back-heel against Italy, at Euro 2004 as Gianluigi Buffon looked on in shock. For Ajax, early in his career, Ibrahimovic slalomed through Brede’s defence, beating five opponents on the way. There was an irresistible volley for Inter Milan against Parma, a sashaying run through against Empoli and Sampdoria. At AC Milan, he unleashed a left-footed piledriver against Lecce.
England manager Roy Hodgson showed his players clips of Sweden’s captain in action before the match and it was almost a miracle they made kick-off such were the number of goals. Ibrahimovic’s pyrotechnics should not mask weaknesses in England’s performance. Hart, a good goalkeeper, had a bad night. There were good displays, notably from Leon Osman, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, who was making his 100th England appearance.
England had the centurion but Sweden had the magician. After a surreal opening ceremony involving knights from a Monty Python sketch, a fake kick-off involving Ibrahimovic and two verses of the national anthem that totally foxed Danny Welbeck, Steven Caulker and the rest of Hodgson’s players, Ibrahimovic had begun his plundering after 20 minutes. An ill-judged pass from Glen Johnson placed Sterling under pressure, Martin Olsson stormed up field and there was Ibrahimovic scoring at the second attempt.
England were struggling, disappointing for half an hour, looking about as likely to knit together as the Friends Arena’s newly-laid pitch. Tom Cleverley even replaced a large divot at one point. One pass from Sterling hit a bobble and bounced apologetically up. Yet England responded.
Gerrard took responsibility, urging the team on. Surrounded by so many youngsters, Gerrard played the head teacher on a school trip, organising and educating. England were also building through Sterling.
With 10 minutes remaining before the break, the teenager showed his ability to thread a pass, picking out Ashley Young with a fine pass from right to left. Young darted at Seb Larsson, deceiving him with a step-over and racing on. Larsson failed to chase back, but Young was long gone anyway, crossing left-footed for Welbeck to equalise from close-range.
Lightning struck twice. Again Sterling was the catalyst, earning a free-kick that Gerrard took charge of. England’s captain swept the ball into the box and there was Caulker sliding it past goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson. It was a special moment for the Spurs defender on his international debut. Moments after scoring, the 20 year-old showed his defensive side blocking an Ibrahimovic shot.
England continued to apply the pressure after the break. Osman, neat and nimble, made a little run, cutting the ball back to Gerrard, whose shot cannoned off Jonas Olsson for a corner. Gerrard then returned the compliment, sliding the ball through to Osman, whose low shot was pushed behind by Isaksson.
Hodgson began to ring the changes, sending on Jack Wilshere to partner Gerrard while Daniel Sturridge took over the front-running duties as Welbeck went left. Wilshere was immediately involved, nodding the ball down on the edge of his box, guiding it forward, his journey stopped illegally by Andreas Granqvist.
But then came the Ibrahimovic show. Anders Svensson drilled a long pass forward, Ibrahimovic eluded Ryan Shawcross with alarming ease and thundered the ball past Hart. It was poor defending by Shawcross. Hart was hardly covering himself with glory. Moments later, Ibrahimovic unleashed a 30-yard free-kick that bamboozled Hart. There was more in Sweden’s new home. Goals pay the rent and Ibrahimovic certainly chipped in with the overheads.