A tale of two strikers
Ibrahimovic needs to be liberated by Mourinho, Costa lethal under Conte
CHELSEA v MAN UNITED
(Tonight, 10.55pm, Singtel TV Ch 103 & StarHub TV Ch 228 - Eleven Plus HD)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa should be animated characters. Their features and characteristics are somehow stretched and exaggerated.
They are Disney archetypes, the beauty and the beast, the enigmatic and the irritating, the weird and the wonderful.
The tall, otherworldly one carries the swishing ponytail of a galloping thoroughbred; the other looks like he's been carved out of Mount Rushmore.
Tonight, they will meet in the English Premier League for the first time, but the cartoonish personas may switch.
Costa's Chelsea are tiptoeing towards something approaching the Beautiful Game. Ibrahimovic's Manchester United can be guilty of a quite beastly boredom.
And, ironically, their recent form is not particularly indicative of their relationship with their managers either.
According to reports, relations are strained between Costa and Antonio Conte.
The Spaniard doesn't approve of the Chelsea manager's methods, which is hardly surprising considering Costa is a heat-seeking missile of malevolence.
Costa's utter disregard for authority is strangely endearing, in a snarling sausage dog kind of way.
He's more of a threat to himself than anybody else.
But Conte's micromanaging doesn't agree with him.
In an extraordinary sequence last weekend, Costa gestured to the bench that he wanted to be substituted against Leicester. Conte didn't like being told what to do.
That doesn't sit well with the 28-year-old Costa. The Spaniard tends to react with all the subtlety of a teenager being told to tidy his bedroom.
He ignored Conte's instructions and the pair later argued in the dressing room.
But the laughable irony is Costa is clearly flourishing under the new fastidious regime. He has seven league goals, the highest in the division, and two assists as a result of Conte's attention to detail.
Chelsea's lively 3-4-3, utilising the pace of newcomer Marcos Alonso and the resurrected Victor Moses, has increased the service and Costa has profited.
The sight of Chelsea chasing a fourth goal against the champions Leicester made for a stirring spectacle last weekend and stood in stark contrast to United's negative performance at Liverpool.
Indeed, Costa often clashed with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea over the kind of sterile tactics that is currently stifling Ibrahimovic at United.
The Swedish legend has scored an impressive six goals in 12 appearances, but none in the last four as a more Mourinho-like template takes hold.
Consecutive draws against Stoke and Liverpool rarely raised the pulse or offered Ibrahimovic much to chase after.
Mourinho obviously needs time to improve his transitional squad, but his tendency to repress rather than release his mercurial mavericks is a cause for mild concern around Old Trafford.
Not only does the conservatism not suit United, it doesn't suit the Swede either.
At Liverpool, Ibrahimovic just wasn't in the picture. The ball rarely reached him.
A record-low 35 per cent possession asked too much of a 35-year-old striker, even one frequently touched by genius.
But Ibrahimovic hasn't succumbed to the public displays of petulance associated with the scowling one at Stamford Bridge.
Fiercely loyal, the Swede has defended Mourinho's tactics and United's tepid displays.
The mutual appreciation society established at Inter Milan remains strong between the two men and Ibrahimovic obviously fits the Mourinho model of an imposing figurehead up front.
But United's preferred 4-2-3-1 line-up against Chelsea's back three potentially leaves the Ibrahimovic isolated and surrounded. The lanky striker could resemble a praying mantis scuttling towards a Venus Fly Trap.
Paul Pogba's commanding performance against Fenerbahce in midweek, with the French midfielder returned to a more familiar central midfield role, suggests he's ready to support Ibrahimovic's endeavours.
Mourinho was quick to criticise all "the Einsteins" in the media for writing off Pogba, but one doesn't need to understand the theory of relativity to recognise that Chelsea on the road present a tougher fixture than Fenerbahce in decline.
Ibrahimovic cannot be left to plough a lonely furrow.
The United forward needs to be liberated, just as Costa needs to be controlled.
At least Conte gets that.
He plays to his striker's strengths. Mourinho must do likewise with Ibrahimovic.
If he wants a beautiful day at the Bridge, he's got to unleash the beast.
By The Numbers
16: Manchester United have lost more EPL fixtures (16) against Chelsea than any other side.
Blues have nothing to prove to Jose
Antonio Conte believes Chelsea's deterioration under Jose Mourinho still lingers in his players' minds ahead of the self-proclaimed Special One's return with Manchester United tonight.
Mourinho won his third Premier League title with Chelsea in May 2015 before his second spell ended seven months later, with the Blues perilously close to the relegation zone.
"When there are these types of season - very bad, because we finished 10th in the table - it's normal that something remains in the players. In their minds. In their heads," said Conte of the lasting damage of last season.
"It won't be easy to cancel a bad season like last season."
BOSS' BIRTHDAY: Antonio Conte hopes to win for the club owner Roman Abramovich, who turns 50 tomorrow. PHOTOS: REUTERS
Conte added that he has not spoken to his players about Mourinho in the lead-up to their reunion with the man who, in 2005, delivered Chelsea's first title in 50 years.
"I didn't talk with my players about Jose Mourinho," said Conte.
"For us, what is important is Manchester United and playing against a team, not against Jose Mourinho."
Some Chelsea supporters railed against their own players after the departure of the popular Mourinho.
But Conte does not believe those individuals have a point to prove to Mourinho.
He said: "When you have a lot of time with a man and you won a lot with him, you love this man. You love this person for the relationship that you were able to create in this time.
"I think the players want to win, but have great respect for him."
One of the players blamed was Diego Costa, after a goalscoring slump which followed his prolific streak in helping Chelsea to the 2014-15 title.
Costa is known for his abrasive approach, but Conte will not try to guard against United trying to provoke the striker, who has scored seven goals this season.
"It's useless to speak with Diego about this situation," Conte said.
Costa showed signs of petulance towards Conte in last weekend's 3-0 win over Leicester, apparently asking to be substituted for fear of picking up a yellow card and a suspension, or an injury. "That topic has finished," Conte said.
Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic remain out with minor muscular injuries, while Conte is still to decide whether or not to field Willian and Oscar, who missed the Leicester match on compassionate leave following family bereavements.
Blues skipper John Terry, who has not played since early last month, was unable to train on Thursday after aggravating an ankle injury, but Conte said the 35-year-old would be ready for tonight's clash.
"John is in good shape. He trained with the team (on Friday)," said Conte. "He solved his problem with his ankle. He's available for the game."
Tomorrow is the 50th birthday of Chelsea's billionaire owner Roman Abramovich and a win would be a fine present.
"We want to give him this gift," Conte added.
- PA Sport.