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SOCCER / GRAHAME L. JONES

FC Barcelona tries a new look

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has replaced Samuel Eto'o as centerpiece star for the Spanish powerhouse, which won three titles last season. It faces the Galaxy on Saturday at Rose Bowl, though 'Ibra' won't play.

August 01, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES

The question being asked most often in Barcelona these days will not be answered at the Rose Bowl tonight.

It might not be answered until May, in fact.

Can FC Barcelona, which swept all before it last season and won three titles with Cameroon international Samuel Eto'o as one of its key players, do as well in the coming season now that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has replaced Eto'o?

"Ibra," as the Swedish international striker is known in the soccer world, would have played tonight when Barcelona takes on the Galaxy at 8 in Pasadena. But the 27-year-old broke his left hand last week and is sidelined for a while.

That's bad news for the more than 85,000 fans expected for the game, but getting to see Lionel Messi should more than compensate.

Josep "Pep" Guardiola, Barcelona's coach, believes Ibrahimovic, the top goal scorer in Italy last season with 25 goals for champion Inter Milan, will be a sparkling addition to the defending European and Spanish champions' already stellar lineup.

"I think Ibra is a top player," Guardiola said. "He is physically strong, and also technically. He scores goals, but he also knows how to play football. We are happy that he is here with us."

To acquire Ibrahimovic, Barcelona sent Eto'o to Inter Milan along with more than $56 million. That's how highly the Catalan club thought of the lanky Ibrahimovic, who at just under 6 feet 4 is a definite aerial threat.

He is also adept with his feet, dribbling with ease and striking the ball with either power or finesse, depending on his mood. Add to that an inventive soccer brain and it is not difficult to see why Barcelona was smitten.

The free-spirited Ibrahimovic will be expected to link up with France's Thierry Henry and Argentina's Messi in the Barcelona front line, and the French star already has said he looks forward to playing with him.

"Technically, he can hold onto whatever ball you send to him," Henry said. "And what I like about him is his character. For some people it is a bit too much, but I don't mind. To be a player like that you have to have it."

But Barcelona has taken a risk. During his time with the club, Eto'o helped it win two European championships, three Spanish championships and a Spanish Cup. Last season, he scored a team-high 34 goals, including the game-winner against Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome.

Guardiola, while impressed, was determined to make some changes.

"Without him, we wouldn't have achieved all we did last year," the coach admitted. "I fully understand that people ask why. He is a wonderful player. Everyone knows there are no 'football' reasons. So why? It is a question of feeling. I think we need to change things."

Ibrahimovic felt the same way.

"I have won everything in Italy," he is reported to have written on his Twitter page. "It's time to move on. I want the Champions League title."

Barcelona is knee-deep in talent, what with the likes of Henry, Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Dani Alves and many more world-class players. All the same, Guardiola wants to tweak the reigning European champions a bit.

"If we can, we'll do some fine-tuning," he said last month. "I'd like to have 16 or 17 reliable players to rotate so people can't guess our lineups."

Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena already has a pretty good idea of the lineup Guardiola will field tonight.

"There's a chance they'll play 22 players," Arena said, referring to a tactic Guardiola used in preseason games in England before heading for the U.S. and a three-game swing through Pasadena, Seattle and San Francisco.

Arena wants the Galaxy to adopt the same positive approach as it did in a recent 2-2 tie with AC Milan.

"It's a great challenge for us, but it should be an enjoyable experience as well," he said. "They have an abundance of talent, and certainly the player I think everyone in the stadium wants to watch is Messi. He's a spectacular talent."

In Barcelona, fans agree, but they're more eager to find out how well Ibrahimovic fits into the puzzle.

Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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