Zlatan proves the difference maker as double steers Man United to League Cup glory
Man United 3 Southampton 2
Zlatan Ibrahimovic headed home a late winner to give Jose Mourinho hist first trophy as Manchester United boss as they saw off Southampton in a memorable EFL Cup final.
That, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic powered the ball past Fraser Forster, was the sound of inevitability.
The Swede reasserted his world-class match-winning ability, Jose Mourinho again won the League Cup as his first piece of silverware at an English job - as he always does - and Manchester United claimed their 43rd major trophy as they beat Southampton 3-2 in a remarkable final at Wembley.
Those stats say an awful lot, especially when you consider that this was the Portuguese’s 13th major final, and the 11th he’d won. For all the debate about his career, and the debate will continue after this supremely entertaining match, there can be no disputing the winning culture he creditably creates though just winning trophies.
The story of this game, however, was different to pretty much any other final he’s played - and, for a time, looked like it was going to end so differently.
How Southampton didn’t win remains hard to explain, especially after having an onside Manolo Gabbiadini goal ruled out. How they came back from 2-0 down after that against such a big side remains even more difficult to explain, but so easy to admire.
How they ended up losing, however, is very easy to say.
Winning games like this is just what Ibrahimovic, Mourinho and Manchester United do.
Just like another major story this week, a game that seemed to defy the usual logic and norms of these types of things only ended confirming and conforming to inevitability all the more exquisitely.
That will pain an exhausted Southampton, as they were so excellent. Just not excellent enough.
Southampton had started so much the better but, for exactly that reason, the first 44 minutes couldn’t really have gone much better for United in the circumstances. They were awful, but somehow found themselves 2-0 ahead.
It shouldn’t have even got to that point, given that Southampton had seemed to maximise their fine start with a goal. With Cedric and Gabbiadini so clearly targeting Marcos Rojo, and Nathan Redmond evidently instructed to create havoc in a central midfield that did not contain Michael Carrick, a pattern was set as United struggled to contain Puel’s attack. Cedric burst down the right on 12 minutes, to smash a cross in that Gabbiadini deflected in, only for the linesman to put his flag up because Ryan Bertrand - who was out of David De Gea’s eyeline - was ahead of the play.
It was unlucky, but an abrasive Southampton were undeterred, until they faced another set-back just six minutes later. Oriol Romeu took down Ander Herrera just in front of the area, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic took the opportunity for one of his free-kick thunderbolts.
Except, this wasn’t quite of his usual standard. It was hard, but fairly central… but still enough to catch out Fraser Forster who dove too slow and too late.
United were 1-0 up but Southampton were not down. They kept coming, kept ripping through centre - to the point it was inevitable that Mourinho brought on Carrick at half-time, for Mata - kept stinging De Gea’s hands with shots, and kept looking to expose Rojo.
If there were plenty of errors from United’s defence, from the officials, and from the Southampton goalkeeper, however, there were none from Mourinho’s attackers on the rare occasions they got forward. This initially seemed so clinically Mourinho.
After 39 minutes when he had looked so poor defensively, Rojo suddenly looked excellent going forward as he burst down the left. The Argentine played a quick exchange with Anthony Martial and Juan Mata, before cutting inside to feed Jesse Lingard. And, as he always seems to do at Wembley, Lingard scored.
He sliced the ball into the bottom corner and surely cut Southampton’s legs away to win the League Cup by half-time.
But no. If anything, Southampton only stood taller.
This was what was so impressive about their display. For many other sides of their size or even fewer resources, to have the start they had, and the goal they had disallowed, and then go 2-0 down to a big side, that would been it. It have felt all too crushingly familiar, all too crushingly inevitable.
Not Southampton. At least not yet.
They kept persisting with the same gameplan, and just kept persisting. By the end of that opening 45 minutes, they were back in it, and it was so telling that Gabbiadini scored with a move so similar to the strike he had ruled out. It was this time James Ward-Prowse who pumped the ball towards goal, but again the Italian there.
Southampton so evidently felt this was on, and kept impressively going for. Within minutes of the second half starting, they were level.
Gabbiadini seemed to be on a level above everyone on the pitch, as he expertly spun around in the box to beat everyone to a dropping ball and instinctively finished past a stranded De Gea.
At that point, there seemed only one winner. The excellent Oriol Romeu should have claimed with a header that cannoned back off the bar.
That, however, was to prove their big chance.
The big side was soon to remind them of why you need to take such opportunities, to remind them of how it is that Mourinho and United have won so many trophies.
You could sense the tone of the game changing at that point. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, remains unchanging.
On 87 minutes, as the pushed-to-the-limit Southampton players went a little too slack at the back, United took a lot. Ibrahimovic had himself started the move, with a clever touch just inside the opposition half, with substitute Marcus Rashford then doing so well to feed the ball out to Herrera. He perfectly picked the cross, and the rising Ibrahimovic picked his spot with a header he had so much time for.
The Swede apparently remains timeless, as does Mourinho’s capacity to win trophies.
In the end, it was inevitable.
(© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service