Ibrahimovic makes his mark in winning return for Sweden

The return of the country’s greatest player meant the World Cup qualifying contest against Georgia was one of the most noteworthy Sweden matches for some time.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after team-mate Viktor Claesson scores the team’s first goal..   -  REUTERS

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s first contribution came after barely five seconds, when he gave away a foul by clambering all over Georgia’s captain in an aerial challenge. Within a minute, he’d been penalised again — this time for charging into the back of the opposition centre back.

There was no doubting Ibrahimovic was fired up for his first appearance for Sweden in nearly five years after coming out of international retirement. The 39-year-old striker just needed to channel his boyish enthusiasm in the right way.

It wouldn't take long.

In the 35th minute, Ibrahimovic received a high, floating ball into the area with a deft piece of control on his chest, before scooping the ball behind his marker and into the middle. Viktor Claesson did the rest with a touch and low finish but it was Ibrahimovic receiving most of the acclaim from Sweden’s celebrating players for a goal that secured a 1-0 win over Georgia on Thursday in the teams’ opening qualifier for the 2022 World Cup.

So, Zlatan is back in the yellow and blue of Sweden, for the first time since Euro 2016. The opposition was modest, the Friends Arena in Stockholm was empty, but the return of the country’s greatest player meant it was one of the most noteworthy Sweden matches for some time.

‘The return of God’

In his typical brash manner, Ibrahimovic had branded it “The return of the God” and said he wanted to put in the kind of performance that would lead to the stadium being named after him.

As it was, Ibrahimovic flitted in and out of a low-quality game after being handed a start alongside Alexander Isak up front. The AC Milan striker had some nice touches — like for the goal — but never came close to adding to his Swedish-record tally of 62 goals for Sweden, in what was his 117th international appearance, before getting substituted in the 84th minute.

He was booked in the 54th for apparently arguing with the referee, maybe a sign of his growing frustration at the way the game was unfolding. His presence, however, did add some star power to a hard-working if unspectacular team built by Janne Andersson. And his experience was put to use, with Ibrahimovic seen giving tactical advice to 20-year-old Dejan Kulusevski during the warmups and also talking to Isak, another of Sweden’s up-and-coming stars.

It was clearly a big night for Ibrahimovic, who spoke ahead of the game about how much he had missed playing for his country. He was the last person from the team to walk out before kickoff and he rubbed his hands as he emerged from the tunnel. Before lining up for the national anthem, he stepped back and looked around a stadium he famously inaugurated with a four-goal display against England in a friendly match in 2012.

There were no such fireworks nine years on.

But, with his assist for the winning goal, Ibrahimovic at least made his mark.