CARSON, Calif. -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic shows up big when the stakes are at their greatest, so no surprise that he was at his best in the first El Trafico derby of the campaign, right?
“The stage was set,” center back Daniel Steres noted after the LA Galaxy again vanquished their crosstown rivals in Week 20. “Were you guys not expecting him to show up and put on a show for you?”
Of course, the Swedish superstar was going to “put on a show,” and he delivered one of his finest performances since coming to Major League Soccer last year, netting a hat trick -- of the "perfect" variety, right foot, left foot and header -- as the Galaxy dictated terms most of the night in a 3-2 triumph over LAFC, at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Ibrahimovic tallied in the eighth, 56th and 70th minutes as LA (12W-8L-1D) overcame an early deficit, then held on at the finish to claim three points and vault past Seattle Sounders FC and back into second place in the Western Conference, nine points behind LAFC (14W-3L-4D).
It was the 37-year-old striker's second hat trick and 10th multigoal game in 43 MLS outings, and he has six goals and an assist in four games vs. LAFC.
Spectacular? Yes. Surprising? Not exactly.
“I have a vision, I have my confidence, and I believe in myself,” Ibrahimovic said during the postgame news conference. “People call it arrogant. I call it confidence. Ignorant people call it arrogant. Intelligent people call it confidence. ...
“[I've had this] since I start to play football. I believe so much in myself, and I have a bullet-proof mind. And when I go out there, I know what I'm able to do, and I do it good. ... I do it perfect.”
The Galaxy provided superb support -- they played with enormous energy, were quick and impactful all around the field, were superbly organized defensively -- and got what they wanted from their biggest star.
“I think the confidence for Ibra is better when the team is going well,” head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “If we can support Ibra's level, he's wonderful. We need to build a team for him and take the best thing he has [which] is in the box.
“It's wonderful. Not [just] today, always. In his career, he's fantastic. And today he was the best player on the field.”
The Galaxy were behind after four minutes, when Carlos Vela scored his 20th goal of the season, connecting from the penalty spot after he was taken down by LA goalkeeper David Bingham. Ibrahimovic equalized just four minutes later, taking a lob from Julian Araujo on his chest, juggling it while fending off two defenders, then volleying home off one bounce from just above the box.
Araujo, playing in midfield for “the first time since AYSO,” got quite a kick out of that one.
“It's crazy. I can't even explain to you,” he said. “I mean, watching him on TV as a kid and seeing all the great goals that he scored. And now being a part of that and giving him an assist to score a great goal, it's an unbelievable feeling.”
Ibrahimovic gave the Galaxy the advantage early in the second half, powerfully nodding home Diego Polenta's perfectly weighted cross, then made it 3-1 with a sizzling finish from outside the box off a Favio Alvarez feed. Vela netted his second of the game in stoppage time, but LAFC never looked like they would catch up. L.A.'s new team has lost twice and drawn twice in four meetings with their crosstown rivals.
Ibrahimovic likes the “heat” of rivalry games and said leading to the game that it's up to him to create it.
“It depends on me, how the atmosphere will become,” he said afterward. “And I made it good today, I think.”
His teammates expect it.
“He's been doing it everywhere he goes, he's been doing it here” Steres said. “He says stuff, he walks on the field, he backs it up. It all started with his first game last year [when he tallied twice to beat LAFC]. It hasn't stopped. He's still doing it.
“He talks the talk and walks it, too.”