Saturday 24 August 2019

Man United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is planning on sticking around for a long, long time

West Brom 0 Man Utd 2

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates opening the scoring against West Brom at The Hawthorns Photo: PA
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates opening the scoring against West Brom at The Hawthorns Photo: PA

Jim White

Long after the game had ended there was still a sizeable crowd gathered outside the players' entrance at The Hawthorns.

They were there to catch sight of one man. And when Zlatan Ibrahimovic eventually left the building, a huge surge of selfie-seekers barged around his car. Emerging from the scrum, one young man came running, holding his phone aloft. "I got him," he shouted. "I got a picture of Ibra."

Manchester United's Jesse Lingard (left) and West Bromwich Albion's Allan Nyom battle for the ball during the Premier League match at The Hawthorns. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Manchester United's Jesse Lingard (left) and West Bromwich Albion's Allan Nyom battle for the ball during the Premier League match at The Hawthorns. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

This is what Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who says he is improving with age like a fine wine, has delivered to Manchester United: the kind of superstar aura that the likes of Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo brought to the club.

Important though a run of 10 goals in nine games may be, it is not just his striking record that singles the Swede out. It is his swagger, his sense of superiority, his complete United-ness.

Indeed, many of the United fans facing the new year with a surge in optimism are coming rapidly to the same conclusion: this is the new Cantona.

Not that Craig Dawson would be at the head of any queue to eulogise. The West Bromwich defender was at the sharp end of everything the forward did in this victory.

As Antonio Valencia lobbed a long ball down the line for Jesse Lingard to volley beautifully across the West Brom area, it was Dawson who Ibrahimovic slyly pulled back, giving himself the extra room to head the delicious cross past Ben Foster.

It was Dawson, too, who felt the full force of the Swede's shoulder in a barge that most of the 26,000 crowd felt warranted more than the yellow card produced by referee Anthony Taylor.

West Bromwich Albion's Chris Brunt (left) and Manchester United's Ander Herrera battle for the ball during the Premier League match at The Hawthorns. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
West Bromwich Albion's Chris Brunt (left) and Manchester United's Ander Herrera battle for the ball during the Premier League match at The Hawthorns. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

And it was the hapless Dawson who inadvertently deflected Ibrahimovic's smartly delivered shot past Foster for United's killer second goal.

Dawson will concur that this is what Ibrahimovic has brought to United: a compelling mix of sublime skill, lynx-eyed finishing and street-fighter wiles.

He has also delivered something else, something observable in the celebrations at the end of the match: a rallying point. It is around Ibrahimovic that this team is gathering.

Five months into Jose Mourinho's reign there was an obvious spirit about the players at The Hawthorns - a togetherness, a willingness to fight each other's battles.

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic (left) is shown a yellow card by referee Anthony Tayor after fouling West Bromwich Albion's Craig Dawson. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic (left) is shown a yellow card by referee Anthony Tayor after fouling West Bromwich Albion's Craig Dawson. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

It was there in Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo outmuscling the dangerous Salomon Rondon; it was there in Ander Herrera's high-energy midfield pressing and in the way they all threw their shirts into the visiting fans' section at the end of the match.

"I told them to do that," suggested Mourinho. "It is Christmas time. A shirt for a fan, full of sweat, it means a lot."

At the centre of it all is Ibrahimovic. Around him the spirit is forming.

The other players clearly look up to him. They are in awe of his age-defying fitness.

If his cowering reaction to his celebratory leap after that first goal is anything to go by, younger players like Lingard find him physically terrifying. And he is the one constant in the side, playing every minute of every game.

Mourinho admitted that was not originally his intention. He thought he might be able to rest the striker in Europa League ties, but early poor results in that competition meant he was required to turn out on Thursday nights. Which he has done uncomplainingly.

Against an oddly unambitious West Brom, he was the man who made the difference.

"I'm settling in. I feel happy, I feel good. Even if I'm 35, in my mind I'm 20," Ibrahimovic said before battling his way to his car.

"The older I get, the better I get. Like red wine. You like red wine? I'm a perfect example of that."

In case anyone thought the end might be looming for this particular vintage, he was anxious to make it clear this was no swansong, adding: "I think I could play also at 50, but it won't be down to me."

If it was down to the delighted fan with the picture on his phone, he could stay on as long as he wishes. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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