Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes Hollywood entrance to decide LA derby

Swedish striker scores twice off the bench including late winner to decide ‘El Trafico’

Los Angeles Galaxy 4 Los Angeles FC 3

It looks like Zlatan Ibrahimovic has arrived in LA then.

Just over a decade ago, David Beckham made his LA Galaxy debut in a friendly against Chelsea. Clearly carrying an injury, he came off the bench for a cameo in front of the ESPN cameras that was short on running, let alone goals. The chief excitement was caused by his very presence – with the network even running a BeckhamCam that mainly showed the Englishman on the bench adjusting his ankle strap.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic would also make his LA debut off the bench, having flown in on a 10-hour flight on Thursday night to the type of feverish reception that would have done Beckham proud, and with no less a sense of expectation. It didn’t hurt that he’d be playing in the inaugural LA derby – dubbed ‘El Trafico’ – with his team torn between trying to play down expectations, and a sneaky hope that, against the odds of injury recovery and jetlag, the Swedish star would continue his habit of scoring on debut.

Those debuts have been with elite European teams however. An LA Galaxy side some distance from the peaks of the Beckham years, and facing a brash and confident crosstown newcomer in LAFC, is a very different proposition. As Ibrahimovic watched the visitors run up a two-goal lead in the first half, he could have been forgiven for thinking he should just let ZlatanCam follow him on the bench.

Carlos Vela, LAFC's Mexican star, had two goals – the first a sublime curling shot. And when the Galaxy conceded a third just after the restart, the Swede could have been forgiven for thinking the old MLS model of veteran star names drafted in as much for marketing purposes as technical purposes, was finally at an end. Ibrahimovic is 36. Vela, while having nowhere near the star wattage of the Swede, is typical of the younger but less celebrated players coming to the league while still in their prime.

But by the end of the game, Vela was a footnote. The Galaxy had fought back to 3-1 with a goal just after the hour, when the chants went up from the home crowd of, “We want Zlatan!”

Ibrahamovic duly entered the field in the 71st minute, and two minutes later, an attack he’d instigated led to a Galaxy goal. There may still have been some anxiety about the state of his knee as he galloped at full speed in pursuit of a ball down the byline, but a few minutes later he’d be putting those doubts to rest.

There didn’t look much on as a defensive header sent the ball looping into midfield. But Ibrahimovic, and his impeccable sense of occasion, had clocked LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller off his line, and also logged the trajectory of the ball. As it bounced above head height he’d already shaped his body, and by the time it reached knee height he’d already whipped his leg to send a wicked, swerving shot over Miller.

The stadium erupted, but Zlatan wasn’t done – he went on to score the winner in added time. LAFC had the temerity to hit the post late on but by the end of the game they looked like what they are – an expansion team learning to play together. Being only the second ever MLS team to lose after leading 3-0 is a tough lesson to learn. It will be little consolation to them that they were taught by a master.

We still don’t know what the future holds for Ibrahimovic – whether this remarkable game was a trailer for future thrills or just a symptom of the great man’s knack for a theatricality that frequently tips into absurdity. MLS travel is long, and takes place mostly on charter airplanes. Game-to-game recovery for even the youngest and fittest player is a big part of professional life. Perhaps it was telling that Ibrahimovic spoke about his happiness that his knee had stood up on his first goal. He’ll have been made aware of the realities of his latest adventure.

But sometimes, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is just unreal. – Guardian service