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The long-awaited showdown: Ibrahimovic vs Ronaldo

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18th October, 2020

With both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo enjoying high-profile competitive streaks, it’s hard to believe anything but a fierce and fascinating rivalry is due to emerge in Italy in the next nine months.

Forget about Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi – that’s not even a contest. Messi is better in almost everything with the exception of heading and, debatably, desire. However, the question should be: is Ronaldo better than Ibrahimovic?

The second and third-best players in the world over the last ten years will contest a rivalry in the 2020-21 Serie A season that will be on a par with Diego Maradona versus Michel Platini in Serie A during the 1980s or even Sandro Mazzola versus Gianni Rivera during the magnificent Milan sides of the 1960s.

Juventus, the 2020 champions, have an inexperienced manager and can expect a tighter race this year if they are to win their tenth scudetto in a row. Not only has Antonio Conte strengthened Inter Milan and Lazio retained their team, but Napoli and AC Milan will plausibly be expected to break into the top three this year.

AC Milan displayed their credentials with a 2-1 victory over Inter in the Derby della Madonnina on Saturday night, and it was their 39-year-old striker who scored both of the goals. The imposing Swede has shown that, despite his age, he can still decide games of this magnitude.

Standing in his way is the Portuguese phenomenon Cristian Ronaldo, who turns 36 during the season, making him three years younger than his high-performing rival.

The two have faced off before but have never shared centre stage for an entire season.

The 2009-10 La Liga season is the only one in which they faced off for an entire campaign, though this wasn’t a full-blown rivalry for two reasons.


The first reason is Messi. Lionel Messi outscored teammate Ibrahimovic by 26 goals in all competitions. He also outscored Ronaldo by 14, as this was Cristiano’s first year at Madrid and he had not quite found his feet. Messi eclipsed him in every aspect – goals, assists, trophies.

It would be from 2010 onwards that Ronaldo rose to Messi’s level and the rivalry formed. However, nobody was talking about Ibrahimovic versus Ronaldo, because it was all about the diminutive Argentine, and nobody gave the No. 2 and the No. 3 a second thought.

Ths second reason was also Messi. Ibrahimovic was not at the best of his ability because for the first and last time in his career he was in a team with a player who was better than him. He needs to be the main man in the team, but Pep Guardiola made it clear Messi was his No. 1.

Aside from a winning goal in an El Classico and two goals against Arsenal in the Champions League, the Swede rarely made the headline until his spat with Guardiola started becoming a regular feature of the back pages.

The only other time Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo crossed paths was when their national sides played off for a place at the 2014 World Cup, which Portugal won. This was the only time that I can recall a Zlatan-Ronaldo contest making the headlines.

Until now.

You could argue Ronaldo’s supporting cast of Pepe, Nani and William Carvalho was slightly better than Kim Kallstrom and Ola Toinoven. You could also make that argument with the Juventus side compared with Milan, but that might be a mistake given AC Milan looks to have a solid base behind Ibrahimovic that will allow him to do what he does best.


Undoubtedly Gianluigi Donnarumma is a better keeper than Wojciech Szczesny. A midfield base of Ismael Bennacer, Sandro Tonali and Franck Kessie are arguably as good as what Juventus have. The attacking talent of Rafael Leao, Brahim Diaz, Ante Rebic and Hakan Calhanoglu is enough firepower to at least compete.

The Juventus defence is the only obvious area of the field where they have a distinct advantage over the Rossoneri.

Since Ibrahimovic returned to Serie A for Round 19 of the 2019-20 season only Duvan Zapata of Atalanta, Ciro Immobile and of course Ronaldo have scored more Serie A goals, while Milan were the best side in Italy in terms of post-COVID restart results. Moreover, Zlatan laid on five assists in half a season and has also brought many intangibles to the side that has seen all Milan players around him raise their game.

The 2020-21 season will see this continue, and finally the narrative of Ibrahimovic versus Ronaldo will start to form once they have both fully recovered from their bouts of illness.

Ultimately these are two players who have scored 1131 career goals between them, and while it’s not a given that either will finish the season as capocannoniere, it’s very likely that both will feature very high on the list.


In my opinion, Ibrahimovic is the more talented, but Ronaldo is the one player in the world who has worked to become a player and can win a game on his own. I alluded to Ronaldo’s desire earlier, and this is something he possesses that nobody, not even Messi, can compete with.

How much both of these players ‘want it’ will be an interesting subplot to the season, as I can see both of them having a huge say in who becomes the Italian Champions in 2021. While some may point to the fact that the priority of the Old Lady will be the Champions League – and this will certainly be true – if Milan are leading Juventus in the Italian springtime, I simply cannot envisage Ronaldo not wanting to play his part and pushing to start every game.

Fans of Serie A should sit back and enjoy the fact that two living legends are igniting a professional rivalry whereby they are both competing for one of the best leagues in the world. The outcome may be able to truly settle the debate of who is the second-best player in the world.