Despite having scored 50 goals in 74 games since joining Milan in 2010 and having won league titles with three different clubs over the past five seasons, Zlatan Ibrahimović will approach Wednesday's Champions League showdown with former club Barcelona knowing that he still needs to prove himself in Europe's elite competition.
There is no arguing with his ability, or his statistics. Since joining Internazionale from Juventus in 2006, he has scored at a rate of a goal every 1.7 games. Were it not for the fact that Juve were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A crowns due to the Calciopoli scandal, the technically gifted Swede would be able to boast an unbroken string of league titles stretching back to his 2004 Eredivisie success with Ajax.
Ibrahimović's year-long stint at Barça was widely seen as a failure, and yet he finished his one season at Camp Nou with a haul of 21 goals in 45 games and winner's medals for La Liga, the FIFA Club World Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Supercopa de España around his neck.
The 30-year-old has been named Serie A's Best Foreign Player on four occasions and won the award for Best Player on three occasions, and yet the suspicion persists — particularly in England — that he is a myth. A flat-track bully. A big-time Charlie.
His performances prove that he has no trouble being decisive in high-stakes domestic matches, having notably scored twice at Parma on the last day of the 2007-08 season to give Inter the Serie A title (after two months out through injury) and claimed the winning goal against Real Madrid in his first ever Clásico in November 2009. The Champions League music, however, appears to give him stage fright.
He has twice produced the goods against Arsenal — with Barcelona in 2009-10 and with Milan earlier this month — but if the three goals he has put past Arsène Wenger's team are removed from the equation, Ibrahimović's list of Champions League victims does not make particularly impressive reading: Lyon (2), Rosenborg, Valencia, Roma, Grazer AK, Celta Vigo, Rapid Vienna (2), Bayern Munich, PSV (2), CSKA Moscow (2), Fenerbahçe, Werder Bremen, Rubin Kazan, Stuttgart, Auxerre (3), Ajax, Viktoria Plzeň, BATE Borisov (2) and Barcelona.
More damning is the exhaustive list of heavyweights against whom he has failed to score in knockout-phase matches: Real Madrid and Liverpool in 2004-05, Werder Bremen and Arsenal in 2005-06, Valencia in 2006-07, Liverpool in 2007-08, Manchester United in 2008-09, Inter in 2009-10 and Tottenham Hotspur in last season's last-16 defeat.
Ibrahimović has never been shy about proclaiming his own greatness, but his erratic behaviour — both on and off the pitch — does not create the impression of a man at ease with himself. There are the media outbursts (such as firing his hair band at Sky journalist Vera Spadini earlier this month), the taekwondo kicks aimed at the heads of his unwitting team-mates, the recurrent barbs at Pep Guardiola, who failed to incorporate the Swede into his all-conquering Barça side after one of the most sensational transfers in living memory.
He missed six games last season through suspension — for punching an opponent and swearing at a match official — and served a three-game ban earlier this year after slapping Napoli's Salvatore Aronica. Exasperated at the criticism he continues to receive, he admitted earlier this season that he derives less enjoyment from playing than in his younger days and has begun to entertain thoughts about retirement.
Whatever his mental state, Ibrahimović could not be in better form ahead of his old club's visit on Wednesday. His brace at home to Roma on Saturday took his tally for the season to 22 goals in 23 league matches and he is on course to emulate his feat from 2009, when his 25 goals drove Inter to the Serie A title and earned him the title of Capocannoniere.
"He really played like Ibrahimović," beamed Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri after Ibra's second-half brace against Roma. "In the second half he played the centre-forward role as only he knows how, and he made the difference."
If Ibrahimović is ever going to shake off the flat-track bully tag, a Champions League quarter-final against his former club with Guardiola watching on powerlessly from the dug-out presents the perfect opportunity.
Opta European team of the Week