Analysis: No Zlatan hit this time for Sweden's one-man band
TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose rare talent burst into the limelight with a splendid goal against Italy at Euro 2004, was a shadow of his brilliant best when Sweden lost 1-0 to the same opponents on Friday.
Sweden's 34-year-old captain again looked his age after a subdued display in an opening 1-1 draw with Ireland and an early Euro 2016 exit looms for a side with one point from two games before facing Belgium in their final Group E match next week.
The tall and powerful striker, who left the pitch without saluting the crowd and did not stop to talk to anyone, has failed to produce a shot on target so far in the tournament.
The same goes for the whole Sweden team but Ibrahimovic will get most of the blame because he was expected to deliver.
"Zlatan is one of the greatest forwards I've ever encountered," said Sweden coach Erik Hamren. "He's a winner and if he's disappointed, I think everyone understands that. It's important to me to respect people for who they are."
It was a different story 12 years ago in Portugal, when Sweden had also faced Italy in their second game at the finals.
The Italians led 1-0 when goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon rushed out to punch a ball that had just bounced in the area.
Ibrahimovic, then 22 and playing at his first European Championship, got there before him and volleyed the ball with his heel, over an Italian player standing on the line and into the net for a late equaliser.
The atypical forward has performed similar acrobatics several times throughout his career but certainly never came close to such a spectacular gesture on Friday.
The notoriously immodest striker, famous for describing himself as an awe-inspiring scoring machine, looked lost on the pitch and had an embarrassing moment in the closing stages when he fired over the bar from close range in front of an open goal.
He was offside anyway but his miss provided a symbol of a dismal performance from a player who has so often lifted Sweden out of tight spots.
His team mates hoped Ibra could do the trick again after a prolific season in which he scored a club record 38 goals to help Paris St Germain win a fourth straight Ligue 1 title.
Questions will now arise as to why the talismanic striker went missing at Euro 2016, although if does have one group game left to redeem himself.
Some will say he collapsed under pressure or point out that he was probably exhausted after a gruelling season.
Others will suggest Ibrahimovic, who has left PSG after four trophy-laden years and has been linked with a move to Manchester United, was distracted by the uncertainty hanging over his immediate future.
The cruellest will say it was not the first time he has crumbled on a big occasion and will suggest that he lacks the ability to make a difference when it really matters -- a trait that separates excellent players from the all-time greats.
(Writing by Patrick Vignal in Paris; editing by Ken Ferris)