Jamie Carragher has talked up the impact of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Manchester United – but admitted he saw the Swede as something of a failure earlier in his career.
The towering Swede is expected to be fit to return for United’s clash with Liverpool on Sunday after missing out against Hull in midweek due to illness.
Having scored 18 goals in 28 appearances for Jose Mourinho’s side so far this season, Carragher knows the player is the clearest danger to Jurgen Klopp’s men in Sunday’s encounter.
But writing in the Daily Mail, Carragher has explained how he ‘never got the fuss about Ibrahimovic’ earlier in his career – but now feels he is the ‘new king of Manchester’.
‘You could see his ego and football arrogance shining through. I had no problem with that at all. I’d heard people talking him up as being one of the best in the world but I didn’t think he was as good as he thought he was. If I’m honest, I was underwhelmed by him and sceptical of his reputation.
‘Bar hitting the post with a thumping shot for Juventus at Anfield in April 2005, Zlatan never did anything to hurt Liverpool.
‘It certainly wasn’t one of the toughest experiences I had in the Champions League, as there was no real movement from him.
‘Back then English clubs were superior in Europe to all bar AC Milan and Barcelona. Most of them couldn’t compete with our intensity and it would not have been easy for Ibrahimovic to try and impose himself on us as he did to domestic opponents.
‘I wouldn’t say I was alone, though, in not being convinced. Martin O’Neill, for one, labelled him ‘the most over-rated player in the world’. We form opinions of foreign players in this country by virtue of what they do in the Champions League or at major tournaments and Zlatan had come up short.
‘He played in Serie A at the same time as Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko — and won Lo Scudetto five years on the trot — but we raved about the other two rather than Zlatan as AC Milan were the Italian club with the European profile. Juventus are Italy’s biggest and most successful club, but they don’t hold a candle to AC in Europe.
‘Given he represented Sweden, it was difficult for him to have any impact at the World Cup or European Championships — he scored a brilliant goal at Euro 2004 against Gianluigi Buffon and Italy that sticks in my mind — but the Champions League was different.
‘He failed in the season he went to Barcelona in 2009. They won the Champions League prior to his arrival and the year after he left (2011); Inter Milan also lifted that trophy without him in 2010 when Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o were the focal point of Jose Mourinho’s attack.’
Carragher then spoke about the moment when all perceptions of Ibrahimovic were changed for good.
‘Perhaps it was only in November 2012 we became fully aware of his talent when he scored four goals against England, which included that remarkable propeller kick from 40 yards — a skill very few would even attempt, never mind execute so perfectly,’ he continued.
‘Really, he has been special all the way through his career. You don’t plunder the amount of goals he did in France for Paris Saint-Germain aged 34 if you are not special — he outscored Cristiano Ronaldo (50-42) in 2016 — and it’s a shame it has taken us so long to appreciate him.
‘I look at him now and wish he had been in the Premier League as a 27-year-old in his peak.
‘He is box office, a 6ft 4in powerhouse with the balance of a No 10. He is a Manchester United player in every sense, with a swagger reminiscent of Eric Cantona. There is a new king in town.
‘Yet for all that brooding and self-belief, he has the same insecurities as all footballers and Thierry Henry told me that Zlatan used to ask: ‘What have they said about me?’ when he knew he had been discussed on television.
‘When United signed him, I knew he would be a good addition but I never foresaw it being for more than 12 months. I never expected he and Wayne Rooney would become a partnership and it is testament to his professionalism that United are already prepared to activate the second year of his contract.
‘Before Christmas, I described Zlatan as being the best signing of 2016. He has won 29 major honours in his career and, the way he is performing, you can see him taking that figure beyond 30 before his time in Manchester is over.
‘Yet his immediate target is Liverpool. Now when I sit down to watch him I understand what all the fuss is about. Now, unlike in 2001, I’m worried about everything he can do.’