This week's Forward Friday is a tribute to Celtic legend Henrik Larsson, the Swedish striker who lit up Scottish football for seven glorious seasons in the peak of his long and successful career.
Henrik Larsson's arrival at Celtic in the summer of 1997 was a seminal moment in the club's history. Celtic paid Dutch side Feyenoord a paltry £650,000 for the dreadlocked Swede; it would prove the greatest signing they ever made.
Arriving shortly after Old Firm rivals Rangers had secured their record-equaling ninth consecutive Scottish league title, the talented young Swedish striker reinvigorated Celtic, firing 16 league goals in his debut season as they overturned their Glasgow adversaries to win their first title in a decade. Larsson would go on to score an incredible 242 goals in 313 matches for the Bhoys, making him the third highest scorer in the club's history.
In his seven years in Scotland, Larsson won four titles, two Scottish Cups and two Scottish League Cups. He top scored in five of his seven seasons at the club, and his impact was such that he was voted into Celtic's greatest team of all time and named their greatest ever foreign player. He had spells at European giants Barcelona and Manchester United in his later years but it was at Celtic that he was at his majestic best.
After a calamitous debut in which he inadvertently set up a Hibernian player to score with a stray pass in a 2-1 defeat at Easter Road, few Celtic fans would have earmarked the gangly young Swede as a legend in the making. But in his second season at Celtic Park he set the tone for what was to follow, doubling his goal tally from the previous season from 19 to 38 in all competitions.
After 12 goals in 12 games at the beginning of the 1999/00 season, Larsson suffered a terrible career-threatening injury in a UEFA Cup tie against Lyon. It was initially feared that Larsson had suffered a compound leg fracture, but x-rays showed the injury was not as bad as first feared. He spent eight months on the sidelines nonetheless, but the following season he made an emphatic return, scoring a remarkable 53 goals in 50 games as Celtic secured a domestic treble. In the three seasons that followed he continued in the same vein, scoring 35, 44 and 40 goals.
106 appearances for Sweden - many of which he made as captain - yielded 37 goals in an international career that spanned 16 years. The 'King of Kings' was an idol for club and country, and was worshipped inside Celtic Park for his loyalty and goals. He loved the club as much as they loved him, and when he did finally leave in 2004 for Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona, it was with a heavy heart that he said goodbye to the Parkhead faithful.
At Barcelona, Larsson proved he could cut it at the highest level of club football, and his one-year deal was extended for a second as the Catalans secured back-to-back La Liga titles. It was during that second season that Larsson inspired a famous Champions League final comeback against Arsenal. Barcelona were a goal down before Larsson came on as a substitute and provided assists for Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti to win the game 2-1. That game-changing performance was probably the finest moment of his club career.
Before he moved back to Sweden to play for his old club Helsingborg, his teammate Ronaldinho - then the best player in the world - described his admiration for the striker: "With Henrik leaving us at the end of the season this club is losing a great player, no question. But I am also losing a great friend. Henrik is my idol and now that I am playing next to him it is fantastic," he said. Indeed, Larsson had proved himself one of Europe's deadliest strikers.
After three more years at Helsingborg, and a brief but successful loan spell at Manchester United in 2007, Larsson finally called time on his playing career at the age of 38 in 2009. He scored an overall total of 434 goals in 772 club appearances spanning 20 years. For the 242 of those that came in green and white, he will never be forgotten.
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