CARSON, Calif. — Lionel Messi.
The Swedish striker certainly was part of the conversation about the world's finest players during his time in Italy, with Barcelona and especially as the linchpin in Paris Saint-Germain's dominance, but where does the LA Galaxy captain rank against them today?
Ibrahimovic has been spectacular for LA, scoring 25 goals in his return from a major knee injury last year, and he's already got seven this year as the Galaxy (6W-1L-0D) are off to a stunning start to their 2019 season.
Does he still belong on the debate?
LA Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto thinks so, and he recently told Yahoo! Sports' Doug McIntyre.
“I'm surprised the level he has. It's wonderful,” Schelotto said. “It's the same level as Messi, Ronaldo. He's 37, he's older. But I think his level is very high.”
Schelotto expanded on those remarks in the lead-up to the Week 8 match against the Houston Dynamo.
“Everyone knows when you with Ronaldo, with Messi, what big [players] they are,” he told media following the Galaxy's training session. “I feel the same with Ibra. I know he's 37 years old, but he keeps making a lot of difference when he plays. Every time, you're waiting for him to make something during the game, like Ronaldo and like Messi. Playing in Galaxy or playing in Manchester United [before coming to Major League Soccer], he always makes some difference.”
Ibrahimovic is flattered by such talk, but doesn't necessarily agree.
“I take it as a compliment,” he said. “I work very hard for what I'm doing. I'm the age now that normally people would retire or slow down. I'm stubborn, because I'm not satisfied. I want more, and I said on Day One when I came here: I'm not here on vacation. ... I'm here to perform and to give back, and that I only do by giving results.
“That is why I'm here, so I'm not here to slow down or take breath. I'm here to eat and give. [Schelotto] should have had me 10 years ago, then he would see something else.”
Schelotto also praised Ibrahimovic's work in practice and with younger players.
“The same personality he has in the game, he has in training,” he told Yahoo! Sports. “Sometimes in training he complains, he gets angry. But we know him. He's very competitive, very demanding. I think he's helping the players in training to grow and to be more competitive.”
Ibrahimovic downplays any mentoring he might do — “Mentor is for the weak people; we have no weak people here,” he said. But Schelotto is impressed.
“Even today, we talk two minutes about that,” Schelotto said. “He knows he's playing with young players, and he knows his work is not only on the field playing. His work is to help everyone grow. ... So he has to give some advice, some words, or some coaching to them to be better. That is all the work he has on the field.”
Ibrahimovic's ability to lift his teammates' levels and the artistry within his game — amplified by the beauty of several of his goals — makes it clear he's not faded far from what he was in his prime, and if the Galaxy can reestablish themselves among MLS's elite teams, he'll certainly be in the MVP discussion. He was a possibility for the award last year before LA was eliminated from the playoff hunt in that stunning home defeat to Houston on the last day of the regular season.
Does he believe he plays at the level of Messi with Barcelona and Argentina or Ronaldo with Real Madrid and Portugal?
“I'm 37. I'm playing in US,” he replied. “When I was in Europe, for sure, I was there. Now I feel good, I don't complain. I do what I love to do, and I'm good at it. When I was in Europe, I was a different animal. Now I'm another animal.”