It's the magic trick of the summer. With the right hand, Barcelona shows off David Villa. Anticipation mounts as the champions chase the summer's most coveted center-forward. The audience's eyes are fixed on the shiny Euro '08 Golden Boot. What they don't see is what's neatly tucked away under the left sleeve. Meanwhile, what to do about Samuel Eto'o? The Indomitable Lion is deemed surplus to requirements, but he is in no hurry to resolve his situation. Eto'o's future is center stage, right alongside Villa. Eto'o provides the drama. Villa, the suspense.
From somewhere off stage, Alexander Hleb criticizes Pep Guardiola. His timing is unfortunate. The audience is growing impatient.Â A competing theater has spent hundreds of millions on flashy light shows and special effects. Suddenly, the nervous silence is shattered by a loud bang and a plume of smoke. When it clears, Eto'o has disappeared and Hleb has gone quiet. Villa is no longer in the cards. There is only Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
To the untrained eye, it may appear that BarÃ§a is giving up too much for the Swedish magic man. Eto'o is valued at close to $40M and the cash portion of the deal brings the total value of Ibra's transfer to about $100M. That's on par with the exorbitant fees that Madrid has been so heavily criticized for this summer. To finance its spending spree, Madrid borrowed $104M from Spanish bank Caja Madrid and is believed to have made a similar deal with Banco Santander. But BarÃ§a's sleight of hand borders on the brilliant here. With a wave of the magic wand, the Catalan giants capture a player whose skill rivals that of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, without needing to mortgage the Camp Nou.
The Lion King
At the same time, the ticking time bomb that was Samuel Eto'o is diffused. By sending him to a Champions League contender, BarÃ§a averts the ugly break-up that seemed all too imminent when the striker refused what Joan Laporta called a "stratospheric" offer from Manchester City. Eto'o is an elite player and after scoring a career-high 30 goals in La Liga, leaving the treble winners for a Europa League club made little sense to the former Pichichi.
Jose Mourinho's system will suit him well. Eto'o will play the target role for the four-time defending Serie A champions. And whether paired up alongside Diego Milito, Mario Balotelli or David Suazo in a 4-4-2, or flanked by Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma in a 4-3-3, he'll never again be asked to play as a winger - a role he fulfilled, but never fully embraced.
Guardiola's attacking style requires midfielders to spend a lot of time in and around the 18-yard box and that multi-pronged and consistent pressure results in goals being distributed among three or four players. In contrast, Mourinho's teams tend to feed the ball into the center-forward, making Eto'o an immediate threat for Capocannonieri.
Ibrahimovic won the Italian scoring title under Mourinho this season with a career-high 25 goals. No one else on the Italian champions scored more than eight.Â Didier Drogba's career-best was also achieved under the Portuguese coach. The Ivorian won the Premier League Golden Boot in '06-07 with 20 goals. The only other Blues' player to score double-digits for that season's EPL champs was Frank Lampard (11).
The Swedish Wizard
In Ibrahimovic, Barcelona acquires the world's most complete center-forward. His combination of size, strength, touch and vision make him a playmaker trapped inside of a target man. His right foot is deadly and his left is more than adequate. Ibra's excellent flexibility and technique means there is no wasted movement when the ball is anywhere near him.
But as brilliant as his career has been to date and despite playing on championship-caliber teams at Ajax, Juve and Inter, the Swede has never enjoyed the kind of creative talent he'll be surrounded with at the Camp Nou. In short, he's the ideal forward for Guardiola's scheme. His ability to play with his back to goal compliments Messi and Henry's slashing runs and his ball-control should mesh well with Xavi and Iniesta's lightning-quick passing.
There is a potential pitfall to the Ibra move. In terms of personality, the Swede can be a bit of a hybrid of Eto'o and Ronaldinho. His strong ego and love of the nightlife are considered red flags in the Catalan capitol. Ibra is also accustomed to being the best player on his team and covets the Balon d'Or. A good relationship with Leo Messi will be crucial. Then again, he is by most accounts a consummate professional and Guardiola has shown himself to be well equipped to handle egos and balance locker room chemistry.