All eyes were on the two superstars heading into the latest installment of El Trafico, in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs on Thursday night.
And they delivered. Of course they did, they always do. In LAFC's 5-3 win over the LA Galaxy, Vela had two goals and an assist while Zlatan had a goal and an assist. Five goals happened under their direct influence. Despite all the other stars on the field, like Cristian Pavon, Diego Rossi and the others, it always seems to run through those two.
It was the first time in the rivalry's six matches that LAFC got the better of the Galaxy. But once again, Vela and Ibrahimovic delivered the goods. Except Vela was just a bit better than his fellow superstar.
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Vela glided across the middle of the pitch like the wizard he is, a nightmare for defenders for the full 90 minutes. He would appear near the midfield line, dribble a defender and flick a through ball to Brian Rodriguez with no warning; A few minutes later, he'd be cutting the Galaxy defense and finishing with his weak foot. Or drifting to position for a tap-in. Or setting up Rossi for the third goal, just as the Galaxy were mounting yet another improbable comeback.
He's a smiling assassin.
Ibrahimovic, on the other end of the field, was more stoic, as he normally operates. He posted up in the center of the pitch, often tormenting Tristan Blackmon, and winning moments, like when he created Pavon's goal or was the beneficiary of a Tyler Miller goalkeeping error.
He's a belligerent superstar.
It was a microcosm of the 2019 season. Both players, at the top of their games and the top of the Golden Boot race, came together for iconic moments in an iconic season. Vela, during the year and on Thursday night, got the better of Ibrahimovic. It was perhaps the greatest individual regular season in league history and he continued that form, delivering a historic performance to lift LAFC after they charitably gave up their two-goal cushion.
The fact that both players came nowhere near each other in the game was a convenient metaphor thanks to their positional tendencies as well. Always so close, yet not together. Like how Ibrahimovic name-checked Vela a few times in the media to boast of his own exploits while Vela often sat out and downplayed those conversations.
Thursday night might have been their last encounter, too, with Ibrahimovic's future up in the air after this season.
No matter how much Vela sought to distance himself from the discussion, it was a rivalry — if this was the last chapter, they went out just as they had in every in clash: two superstars at the top of their game.