Why Zlatan Ibrahimovic could return to haunt Claude Puel and new club Southampton
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is widely regarded as one of the best strikers in the Beautiful Game. He has graced the field for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, scored countless goals and won numerous titles during a glittering career. Now at 34, in the twilight years of his career, still showing that there is life in the old dog yet, he is cherished not only for his contribution on the pitch, his outrageous goals and what he can bring to a team, but for his personality. His well-documented arrogance and playful nature which make him one of the sport’s most recognised and iconic figures. Although one man, new Southampton manager Claude Puel, is more than likely sick of the sight of him.
Puel is more than familiar with the enigmatic Swede from his stint in Ligue 1 as manager of Riviera club OGC Nice, whilst Ibrahimovic was lighting up the Parc des Princes weekly during a four-year spell at Paris Saint-Germain. The forward was so often the pantomime villain against Puel’s Nice, scoring 11 Ligue 1 goals against Les Aiglons for PSG whilst Puel was manager, including two hat-tricks.
Though this wasn’t to be unexpected given the climate of Ligue 1, Paris Saint-Germain possessing a star-studded team with Ibrahimovic the diamond light up front, as well as having the most spending power in French football at their disposal. Throughout those years in France, Ibrahimovic would star in a PSG attack with the likes of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore, Angel Di Maria and Lucas Moura that would carve open teams at will and march on comfortably to the Ligue 1 title. The conundrum for Puel was keeping the scoreline respectable rather than conjuring a means of stopping them. Zlatan chalked up a phenomenal 113 goals in 122 Ligue 1 outings for Paris Saint-Germain.
With a record so prolific it is no wonder that Puel’s Nice team capitulated before him, even in the midst of last season where the now Saints boss guided Les Aiglons to their strongest ever league finish under his tenure, securing 4th place and Europa League football for this season, only for Puel to be subsequently dismissed and link-up with Southampton.
With regards to the match action, even Nice’s promising European challenging side were no match for Zlatan, who dismantled the home team on the night where he surpassed Mustapha Dahleb to become PSG’s record goalscorer. He ruthlessly cut Nice open at the Allianz Riviera on the night in December 2015, assisting Edinson Cavani’s opener before drawing a penalty from left-back Niklas Hult that resulted in a straight red card, Ibrahmovic stepping-up to convert from the spot. He bagged a brace to cap off a fine night just after the hour mark, adding a sensational third for PSG when he latched on to Thiago Motta’s pass to slot home emphatically at goalkeeper Yoann Cardinale’s near post. The Parisians ran out 3-0 winners.
In the return game in Paris, where a Hatem Ben Arfa goal to level the game at 1-1 looked to have Puel’s team well in the match, Ibrahimovic hit a hat-trick for good measure to kill off the challenge from Nice. Puel’s side were put to the sword 4-1 by Zlatan and friends on the night at the Parc des Princes.
All well and good then, considering that Claude Puel’s Southampton side will be facing the Swedish star at Old Trafford when the Saints visit Manchester United for the Friday Night Football showpiece, kicking-off at 20:00.
The climate of the Premier League however is very different. Puel is up against his adversary on a much more level playing field this term, and no game in the Premier League is as foregone a conclusion as could be expected from the majority of outings from the Parisians in Ligue 1. Ibrahimovic however has made a sterling start to life in England, with two goals in two competitive games including his winning goal in the FA Community Shield against Leicester City, and his superb 25-yard bullet at Bournemouth on the opening weekend of the Premier League season.
Claude Puel will know all about the threat of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as will one of his latest signings, full-back Jérémy Pied, the former Lyon and Guingamp man who followed Puel to St. Mary’s from OGC Nice, having played a starring role in the Aiglons side that achieved European qualification.
Facing the Red Devils at Old Trafford before the TV cameras is a terrifying prospect in itself, but more importantly for Zlatan, it will be his first competitive outing for Manchester United at the Theatre of Dreams. With the Special One José Mourinho looking on from the dugout in what will also be his first game at Old Trafford in charge of United, the Swede will be looking to do himself, his manager and his new supporters proud and will be gunning for Puel’s side yet again. Southampton undoubtedly, will have to be at their best to take anything from the game on Friday.
Nullifying the threat of Ibrahimovic, given Puel’s prior knowledge of the player, will more than likely be Southampton’s priority in defence, and they seek to shut-out United’s potent attack. It is not a feat of which Saints are incapable, having snatched all three points at Old Trafford last season courtesy of a late Charlie Austin winner.
To repeat such fortunes, the important thing for the visitors will be to stay in the game, remain well drilled, neutralise Ibrahimovic and to take their chance when it arrives. Though having so often been the pantomime villain for Claude Puel’s teams in the past, it would not be unsurprising for the beast to rear its head again to leave Puel bamboozled and going back to the drawing board once more.
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