Barcelona won the Champions League with unanswerable majesty, but as if to make it more interesting this time round, Pep Guardiola, the all-conquering rookie coach, has exchanged the speed and directness of Samuel Eto'o for the more static and egocentric talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Camp Nou has always been a casino.
Guardiola may never be this powerful again. He entered the new campaign parading Barça's unprecedented haul from his debut year: Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey. This blitz, which prompted Real Madrid to shake the money tree to its roots, entitled Catalonia's latest saint to stick to the same formula for 2009-10. Instead, Guardiola imported tactical change and an awkward personality. The first major test is Ibrahimovic's return to Inter on Wednesday night, six weeks after Eto'o moved in the opposite direction from Barcelona to San Siro.
This player swap would have been big enough news already without the £40m Barcelona had to add on top to bring European football's great enigma to Spain. Eto'o had scored 108 times in 145 outings for the Blaugrana. In return, they took possession of a 27-year-old Swede who divides the sages into worshippers and indignant disbelievers, of whom Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, is one. "Good grief, he is the most overrated player on the planet," exclaimed O'Neill in his pundit's role at the last World Cup.
Rather in the John Jensen tradition of I-was-there-when-he-scored T-shirt making, there are people who swear they have seen the giant-but-dexterous Ibrahimovic excel in a big game. He scored his second goal in two games for his new club in Barcelona's 2-0 win away at Getafe last night. The disdain is largely confined to games involving English clubs, in which "Ibracadabra", as he was known in Italy, has a history of going walkabout. But there is such a welter of evidence in the opposing camp – including Barcelona's willingness to stump up £40m in cash – that it feels perverse to keep thinking last season's top scorer in Serie A is a self-obsessed impostor.
How can it be so, when the European champions have built a new forward line around him, when he was voted the best player in the Italian league in 2008, when some of the game's biggest names constantly compare him to Marco van Basten? Fabio Capello, the England coach who helped him to two league titles at Juventus, told Italy's La Repubblica: "When Zlatan arrived in Italy he was a rough diamond. But now he is very complete, the best striker in the world and impossible to mark inside the penalty area. I know comparing Van Basten to Ibrahimovic is like comparing Picasso to Rothko, but I believe that because of his power and his technique Zlatan will become stronger than Marco.
"Zlatan needed to learn and mature, but he's an intelligent lad. He also has an incredible gift for maintaining his position, freeing himself from defenders and at the same time seeing a pass, a space or a chance to shoot. What Van Basten and Ibra have in common is their natural elegance. We're talking about giants who are like poetry in motion."
Ibrahimovic was born in Malmo to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother. He joined his local club at 13 and left after Malmo had been relegated, moving to the great Ajax finishing school for £5.5m in 2001. But he always stood outside the herd. He was described as "a shit" by Milan's Alessandro Nesta and drew this stinging review from his headmaster, Agneta Cederbom, who once said: "I have been at this school for 33 years and he is easily in the top five of the most unruly pupils we have had during that time. A one-man show. Completely outstanding in his field, and a prototype of the kind of child which ends up in serious trouble. And I think things could have gone horribly wrong if it hadn't been for the football."
Ibrahimovic left Ajax for Juventus for €16m and, after serving two years with Capello at the Turin club from 2004-2006, he joined Inter when Juve were relegated for their part in the great Serie A match-fixing scandal. There, he agreed with the directors that the only club Inter could sell him to was Barcelona, where a record 60,000 Catalans turned up to see him introduced. On that day in late July, the club's president, Joan Laporta, said: "He is not a conformist, he is ambitious, a winner, an authentic man with strong feelings and he wanted to come to Barcelona."
Thierry Henry said: "Whichever ball you throw at him, he will keep it. What I like about him is his character. I know for some people it is too much, but I don't mind. To be a player like he is, you need to have it sometimes."
In a major study of Ibrahimovic's growth from enfant terrible to aristocrat striker, Sweden's Offside magazine recalled the day Lazio's Dejan Stankovic was watching a 2001 pre-season friendly between Ajax and Milan, and turned to a team-mate – as Paolo Maldini struggled against Ibrahimovic – to ask: "Who is this phenomenon?"
Scouting reports all noted the unusual convergence of power and skill. Ivica Kurtovic, who coached him at his first childhood club, FBK Balkan, said: "He was completely fearless on the field. He put his head straight in where the others didn't dare put their finger. [At nine] he was very forward and hungry. Many of the boys could have been as good as Zlatan. What tipped the scale in his favour was his attitude to the game. A few of them missed training but Zlatan wanted more. I often saw him in his garden playing football on his own when I rode my bicycle home during those years."
In Rosengard, where he grew up, Ibrahimovic has paid for a rubberised surface, golden goals, and lights at the small practice ground where he learned to be adroit in tight spaces. He posted a plaque, which reads: "Here is my heart, here is my history, here is my play. Take it further."
"You had to run less, but you had a lot of time on the ball, and I like a lot of time with the ball," he said. "The margins are very small, and it makes you think what you have to do with the ball on a bigger pitch."
Then, he was known as a volatile type with no patience, inconsistent, self-absorbed. That reputation followed him to and from Amsterdam, where the coach David Endt said: "At Ajax we're very good at discovering talent, but you have to use talent in a functional way. Sometimes that's hard to accept for players who know they're good. Ibrahimovic had a magic touch and my first thought was: 'Here's the new Van Basten.' I thought: 'I'll have to keep this to myself.' No player should have to be under that kind of pressure."
Co Adriaanse, another Ajax coach, said: "Here, Zlatan was a very difficult person, an introvert who was thinking only of himself. He'd got something wrong in his head. I couldn't get any contact with him. David Endt tried to get contact with him as well, but it was hard to reach Zlatan's heart." Tommy Soderberg, the Sweden coach, prescribed patience and told the Ajax staff that Ibrahimovic "didn't trust anybody" but would respond to careful handling.
At Inter, where he was an automatic starter for Roberto Mancini and José Mourinho, Ibrahimovic shed much of his reputation for turbulence and unreliability, and it may be that Guardiola has gambled at just the right point. Certainly, Ibrahimovic's self-critique of two years ago chimes with the theory that he is a misunderstood master of the striker's art: a thinker who can see geometrical possibilities to which others are blind.
"I'm very quick because I can see still pictures in my mind during the game," he said. "When I'm playing I can see things no one else can see, and it's still in my head five seconds later. They are pictures of what's going to happen on the pitch and what I'm going to do next. I didn't have them when I was younger but when the play reached a more serious level they started turning up. When the play was getting quicker I had to try to find the right solutions."
While Inter and Barça lock antlers, last season's beaten finalists, Manchester United, face a less glamorous assignment at Besiktas. This week Sir Alex Ferguson reflected on the 2-0 defeat at the Stadio Olimpico in May, in which Eto'o scored Barcelona's first after 10 minutes.
"When you look at these things you can find reasons or excuses, and it's always better to look at the reasons," Ferguson said. "I've watched the game since and I'm quite clear about where we went wrong. That's always helpful. If there are good reasons you can put a lot of things to the back of your mind and get on with your life. If it was a case of not finding any reasons at all then we would be worried."
Ferguson craves a rematch with Guardiola: "Absolutely. I'd love another final. That was the first Champions League final I had lost and obviously it was very disappointing, but it's over. There's no point kicking yourself all summer over it, and I haven't. You can't win 'em all, bad days come along, put it behind you and move on."
Barcelona had good days – the best days in their history, some think – but moved on, too, from Eto'o to Ibrahimovic. Embracing risk has made the club what they are.
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