Monday 25 September 2017

There's only one Ibrahimovic

Swede will look to get one over on his hero Mourinho, says David Hytner

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will meet Chelsea against a backdrop of questions over his form
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will meet Chelsea against a backdrop of questions over his form

David Hytner

Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not appear to have the room. The cross from Adriano was too low for him to head at goal and too high for him to execute a normal volley. The ball had come in at pace and it seemed to be pinning him at chest height.

What Ibrahimovic did next was one of those moments that highlighted his love of improvisation and innovation. He swivelled, cocked his right leg high and back-heeled the ball with exquisite timing and power inside the near corner of the net. It was October 2008 and the goal had given his Inter team the lead in Serie A against Bologna. San Siro went crackers.

All except one person. He simply stood with his hands in his trouser pockets and stared, stony-faced, into the distance. It was not the first time that this had happened and neither would it be the last. Ibrahimovic was irritated. What the hell was it with the Inter manager, Jose Mourinho, he thought?

The pair are set to renew acquaintances. On Tuesday night at the Parc des Princes, Ibrahimovic's Paris Saint-Germain will entertain Mourinho's Chelsea in the Champions League last 16, first leg. There are many intriguing dimensions to the tie, but Ibrahimovic versus Mourinho is arguably the most prominent.

They were together at Inter for only one season, before Ibrahimovic departed for Barcelona in July 2009, having decided that he could not fulfil his dream of winning the Champions League with the Italian club. Mourinho had a message for him as they said their farewells in Milan. He told Ibrahimovic that he might be seeking Champions League glory at Barcelona, but it would be Inter who would take the trophy. He was right. The following season, Mourinho's team edged Ibrahimovic's Barcelona in the semi-final en route to beating Bayern Munich in the final.

Ibrahimovic had not been sure what to expect of Mourinho when he succeeded Roberto Mancini at Inter in the summer of 2008, but he was disarmed by the first impressions and blown away by the sheer force of the Portuguese's personality and professionalism. As he says in his richly entertaining autobiography, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as told to David Lagercrantz: "Mourinho would become a guy I was basically willing to die for."

Ibrahimovic's insight into Mourinho's style is fascinating and it resonates at a time when the latter has adopted the mentality of a siege, as the outside world, in his opinion, lines up to take pot-shots at Chelsea. Ibrahimovic describes Mourinho as the perfect blend of silk and steel, a man whose concept of loyalty and leading by example inspires fierce emotion in those who follow him. In short, he says Mourinho is the antithesis of Pep Guardiola, Ibrahimovic's nemesis - the manager with whom he fell out spectacularly at Barcelona.

"Mourinho says whatever he wants and he's the leader of his army," Ibrahimovic says. "But he cares, too. He would text me all the time at Inter, wondering how I was doing. He's the exact opposite of Guardiola. If Mourinho lights up a room, Guardiola draws the curtains."

According to Ibrahimovic, Mourinho "manipulates players like no one else". He talks about how Mourinho wins them over by being interested in them and their families; how he dazzles with his natural aptitude for languages and how he knows precisely when to use the carrot or the big stick. There is also the small matter of how Mourinho seriously knows his stuff.

"He works twice as hard as all the rest," Ibrahimovic says. "He lives and breathes football 24/7 and he does his analyses. I've never met a manager with that kind of knowledge about the opposing sides. It was everything, every last detail, right down to the third-choice goalkeeper's shoe size. I felt increasingly that this guy gives everything for the team, so I want to give everything for him."

Ibrahimovic has twice found his path to Champions League success blocked by Mourinho: first in 2010 with Barcelona - the semi-final represents the furthest that he has progressed in the tournament - and again last season, when PSG fell to Chelsea in the quarter-finals. Ibrahimovic limped out of the first leg, which PSG won 3-1 at home, and he missed the Stamford Bridge return, when Chelsea won 2-0 to advance on the away goals rule.

Ibrahimovic enters the re-match against a backdrop of questions over his form and whether he remains the all-conquering force of his first two seasons at PSG. A heel injury has held him back - he was out for seven weeks from late September - and it has taken him time to rediscover his rhythm. Critics say that he has yet to do so, that he has lost the explosiveness which defines his game.

His statistics look good. He has 10 goals in 16 Ligue 1 matches and two in three in the Champions League. But they are not the sort of numbers that he posted in the past two seasons, when he was utterly prolific, and he has suffered by the comparison.

It is worth noting that L'équipe have given him an average match rating of 4.79 out of 10 in the league - which does not even rank him in the top 11 PSG players - and there is the ongoing issue of his lack of chemistry with his attacking team-mate, Edinson Cavani, who is struggling badly.

Off the field, Ibrahimovic has clashed with journalists and tried to belittle them. They have been the sort of exchanges that would have been laughed off over the past two seasons, examples of Zlatan being Zlatan, but they have now been seized upon and psychoanalysed in a negative way.

Ibrahimovic, though, runs on rage; on the desire to prove people wrong and bend them to his will. "There was just one thing that really bothered me about Mourinho," he says. "I was doing totally amazing things [at Inter], but he had a face like a wet weekend. I thought, 'I'm bloody well going to make sure I liven him up, even if I have to achieve a miracle'."

Ibrahimovic scored several more breathtaking goals that season, which failed to raise a flicker in Mourinho and after Inter had secured the title, his target was to become the first Swede since Gunnar Nordahl in 1955 to top the Serie A goalscoring chart.

Mourinho asked the Inter team to help him and the shoot-out with Marco Di Vaio of Bologna and Genoa's Diego Milito went all the way to the final minutes of the season. In fairy tale fashion, Ibrahimovic took the award with a late backheeled goal against Atalanta.

"I strolled back towards the pitch and there was something completely different that really made me stop short," Ibrahimovic says. "It was Mourinho. He was cheering like a schoolboy, jumping up and down. I thought, 'So I got you going after all'. But it took some doing. I had to win the Capocannoniere with a back-heel."

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