Jose Mourinho has told The Sun that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is “very special,” even if he was not always the easiest player to manage.
Chelsea travel to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal on Wednesday night and, after coaching Ibrahimovic at Inter Milan, he is well aware of the threat the Sweden international can pose.
Before leaving for Barcelona in 2009, Ibrahimovic helped Inter to the scudetto and finished as the season’s top scorer in Serie A, but Mourinho revealed he had to use his man-management skills to keep the striker happy in his last game for the club as they beat Atalanta 4-3.
“It was the last game of the season and Inter were already champions,” he said. “We were playing at home against Atalanta, a match we should win easily, and Ibra was desperate for the Golden Ball, desperate to finish as top scorer in Serie A.
“So he’s trying to score a few goals to make sure, but all the other strikers, all the other players are trying to score, too. He got very angry -- he thought they should be helping him to score, not trying to score themselves. And he was right, the team was being selfish, the team was not playing for him.
“We were champions and if you are champions and if your striker is trying to win the Golden Ball, you help him, but it looked like the team had forgotten that. They were all enjoying themselves and nobody was playing for him.”
Ibrahimovic had opened in the scoring in the 12th minute and that strike would have left him level with Bologna’s Marco Di Vaio and Genoa’s Diego Milito on 24 goals.
As the game was drawing to a close, fellow Inter striker Mario Balotelli decided to take a shot rather than play in Ibrahimovic.
Mourinho continued: “He was very angry and upset as he came at me. He was shouting: ‘We are champions! I helped a lot to make you champions, now nobody’s helping me. I want to go out now. I want to go out!’
“But I pretended not to understand him. I pretended I couldn’t tell what he was saying. I said, ‘What? What? Do you want a drink? Do you want some water?’ and I threw him a bottle. I told him: ‘Here, take a drink and go.’
“And a few minutes later he scored a beautiful goal, one of those backheels of his that he often scores. We won the game and he was the top scorer in the league -- 25 goals I think -- so he was happy in the end.”
Mourinho’s Inter got the better of Ibrahimovic’s Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals the following season, but the Chelsea boss is happy to avoid regular clashes with his former charge.
“He is very special -- he is one of the best strikers in the world,” he said. “I’m just glad that I don’t have to face him all the time. It’s not that I’m scared of him and what he can do, no, but I do respect him and what he can do.”
Meanwhile, former Blues star Gianfranco Zola has warned that Ibrahimovic could prove "unstoppable" in Wednesday's game.
The striker has struck a club-record 40 times in all competitions for the French champions this season and Zola told RMC: “He's a unique player. There aren't any others like him in the world.
“When he's on form, he's unstoppable. He's at the same level as [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi. He has the strength, the technique and the intelligence. He's an extraordinary player. The consequences for Chelsea are that it's going to be very difficult to keep him under control. It's up to him, on his form, on Wednesday. But we know that the Champions League is very important for him.”
While Ibrahimovic will pose the main threat, Chelsea would be foolish to neglect the menace of either Edinson Cavani or Ezequiel Lavezzi, who will line up alongside the Swede in Laurent Blanc's 4-3-3.
The PSG boss, whose side are utterly dominant domestically, insisted he would not change his team’s playing style to accommodate Chelsea’s, something anchester City midfielder Samir Nasri believes plays right into the visitors’ hands.
Nasri told L'Equipe: “They're exactly the kind of opponents Chelsea love. That team will always have problems against sides like Crystal Palace, for example, because they don't like to dictate play, but in big games they're a counter-attacking team.
“They suck you in, they let you come at them and then they explode all over the place on the counter with Willian, Hazard and Ramires. That's their strong point.”