Four goals: Another night to remember from Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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Consider the magnitude of star it takes to overshadow the huge collection of talent they’re accumulated at Paris Saint-Germain. We’re talking about one of the world’s best defenders (Thiago Silva), a world-class number nine (Edinson Cavani), a uniquely exciting attacker (Ezequiel Lavezzi) and a player that many have called the next Andrea Pirlo (Marco Verratti).

Imagine the type of talent that can put distract from all those stars, and you’ll come up with some version of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a player whose combination of skill and gravitas overshadows one of the most expensive rosters ever assembled.

That squad won on the road in Champions League by five goals on Wednesday, a performance that would normal be triumphed as a rare show of excellence. Instead, after their captain’s four-goal performance, Zlatan will be the story coming out of Anderlecht. And he only needed 62 minutes to write it.

“Ibra” started his day in the 17th minute with one of the easiest goals you’ll ever see him score. A perfectly placed ball from Gregory Van der Wiel went through the six-yard box, between goalkeeper and defenders, and onto Ibrahimovic’s foot. The redirection proved the most mundane goal of Ibra’s day.

Five minutes later, Ibrahimovic slightly over-ran another ball from Van der Weil while attacking near-post. To compensate, he allowed the ball to run onto his trailing right foot. The Swedish international then hit a back heel that beat Thomas Kaminski – the type of shot that forced you to ask whether he was setting up for the back heel all along.

Ibra’s third goal came in the 36th minute and will be the one you’ll see over-and-over during the next 24 hours. With a right-footed shot first time from 28-yards out, Ibrahimovic flexes the back of Anderlecht’s net with a ball stuck as well as you’ll ever see:


In the second half, after his team had found a fourth, Ibrahimovic finished with the most surgical finish of his night. Put behind the defense and into the right side of the penalty area, Ibra hit a bouncing ball from a sharp angle against the left post, the path of the rebound across goal sending his shot into the near-side netting.

Given the angle and where he hit the ball, that spot may have been Ibra’s only option. To the left, and it goes off the post and out. To the right, and it finds Kaminski’s hand. He not only hit it, but he did so with the same degree of intent he put behind his third goal.

Talk all you want about Messi or Ronaldo, Ibra’s attitude or persona, but there’s only one player in the world that consistently does things like this. And when you hear people fawn over him, comparing his play to artistry, they’re talking about nights like this, where Ibrahimovic not only finds one highlight reel goal but strings together three or four.

This isn’t luck or happenstance. This isn’t a guy asking ‘why not’ every time he tries something new. This is intent. This is skill. This is a man who expects to score when he hits a ball from a near-impossible angle, the reason why Ibra gives us three or four like this each year.

It’s also why we watch European soccer. It’s for performances like these. It’s for nights like tonight. It’s for the transcendent talents who, at any moment, remind you of what can be done with a ball – a lifetime’s worth of work coupled with the type of imagination that sees a clearance rolling out of the penalty area as a chance to swerve a shot into the upper-left hand corner.

Talk about Zlatan’s arrogance if you want, but when we see nights like this, anything else would be false modesty. There’s no arguing what this guy can do with a soccer ball. Or, in the case of his last two goals, what he does to a soccer ball.

Performances like these are what it’s all about.

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.

David Moyes faces FA charges after being sent off during EFL Cup

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David Moyes and Sunderland have gotten off to one of the worst starts in Premier League history.

If they fail to earn a point against Arsenal this weekend, they will tie the 1995-96 Manchester City team for the worst start ever through 10 matches with two points.

It appears those frustrations carried over to the EFL Cup for Moyes. On Wednesday, the manager was forced to leave the dugout toward the end of Sunderland’s 1-0 loss to Southampton after he protested a no-call from referee Chris Kavanagh.

Moyes was charged by the FA for his protests, saying the manager “used abusive and/or insulting words towards a match official”.

It’s just another thing to add to Moyes’ plate as he looks to keep Sunderland’s hopes of safety alive in the Premier League.