Zlatan vs Guardiola : Saturday’s derby comes with an enticing sub-plot


There is always a lot of build-up and a lot of reason for excitement when the two Manchester clubs take each other on. Perhaps this has faded a little in recent years with Manchester United struggling a fair bit after Sir Alex Ferguson departed the club. This season, however, things look to get back to the same zesty level with the two clubs under fierce rivals José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. The duo apparently shares an intense history from their time back in Spain. It takes someone special to take the attention still away from José Mourinho, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is every bit that. As Manchester United prepare for their visit to Manchester City on Sunday, one can’t help but remember the past, the past that specifically involve Zlatan and now Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Ibrahimovic played under Guardiola for a single season at the Nou Camp back in 2009/10. After a few successful months, the two failed to see eye-to-eye with each other. For some, resentment and hatred fades as time passes. “Time heals all wounds” goes the popular expression. However, Zlatan has failed to forget and is certainly far from forgiving.

The interview he gave to CNN just last November, as a Paris Saint-Germain player, can illustrate this. When asked about what it was like playing for Pep Guardiola, he replied, “As a coach he was fantastic. As a person I’ve no comments about that, that’s something else. He’s not a man; there’s nothing more to say”. This was almost five years after playing under him.

Forget interviews; there is no better place to go to read about Zlatan’s views on Guardiola (and many others) than his autobiography. It is his book where he calls Guardiola multiple things, a “spineless coward” and “the Philosopher”. The tag of “Philosopher” is not a compliment; he says this in the most demeaning tone.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic Barcelona 2010

The former Sweden international moved to Barcelona for £57m in 2009, making him the second costliest player at the time after Cristiano Ronaldo. Zlatan was perhaps, not just at odds with just Guardiola, but also with the club. He said that being at Barcelona was like being back at school. He was astounded at the fact that none of the players acted like superstars. All the big players, including Iniesta, Xavi and Messi, acted like “schoolboys”. He said, “The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous. Everyone did as they were told. I didn’t fit in, not at all.”

One has to feel for Guardiola. The place where Zlatan and the coach’s relationship broke down was when Zlatan was “sacrificed” for Messi’s wish to play the central role. According to Zlatan’s autobiography as well as Guillem Balague’s biography of Guardiola, Messi asked Pep to play him as a number nine or not play him at all. Guardiola could only appease one superstar in the camp, and he chose Messi. The fact that Messi was an Academy graduate, someone who agreed with the ethos and philosophy of the club, someone who behaved like a team player or a “schoolboy” probably played a role. Messi even came at odds with Luis Enrique when the latter began his reign as Barcelona’s coach. It was only after the matter was resolved, and Messi was back in the team perhaps under his own conditions, that Barcelona began the run of form that led them to win the treble.

Laurent Blanc managed Zlatan wonderfully during his time at PSG, and Eric Hamren did his best to meet all of the superstar’s desires in the national team. But as luck would have it, at the twilight of his career, he has been reunited with the manager he was ready to “kill for”,  José Mourinho. Mourinho himself is not a big fan of Guardiola so it is not difficult to imagine just how much the Manchester United duo wants to one-up City and their leader-in-charge.

Six years have passed since Ibra played for the Catalan side under the boss he resents so much. Many players would have forgotten this episode, but not Zlatan. He has confessed, “My entire career has been built on the desire to strike back”. On Saturday, he has the chance to.

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