Wednesday 21 February 2018

COMMENT - Effortless Zlatan Ibrahimovic compounds the agony of Wayne Rooney

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Reuters / Darren Staples
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic Reuters / Darren Staples

Ian Herbert

The look on Wayne Rooney’s face when the fourth goal went is the one which should be considered and remembered by those who will take pleasure in him being relegated to the bench.

There was applause and a broad grin from him and no sourness that the team had gone into overdrive the minute he was absent. These are the moments to judge a sportsman’s character - even one who for some in this place will never win redemption for his threat to leave nine years ago, triggering a stand-off which Sir Alex Ferguson could not win and a huge pay-rise for himself.

Behind the smile, though, what private agonies must have been playing out in Rooney’s interior mind? The captain was dropped, the team flourished and everywhere he looked on the pitch there were sights to taunt a 30-year-old who has to wonder where he fits, in the weeks and months ahead .

The obvious ones were self-evident. The presence in the stands of Sam Allardyce. The new-found balance of a side which Ander Herrera managed with such assurance and so much time from his position in front of the defence, freeing Paul Pogba to take up advance positions in the space which was previously Rooney’s designation.

But there was also the swagger and supremacy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, revealing for all the world that it is possible to flourish as a striker when your 30th birthday has long been and gone.

Ibrahimovic is the one who those at the top of United have been most struck by in the past two months. They thought they were buying a striker but have in fact found an individual with profound dressing room influence: a captain, by any other name. He revealed what he brings in a late first half moment, when Leicester City’s Wes Morgan set off to retrieve a hopeful ball down United’s left, with the Swede in pursuit. Morgan’s head-start should have made it a one-horse race. It was Ibrahomivic’s sheer strength that allowed him to muscle in on possession.

It is the 34-year-old’s uncompromising presence which makes him such an absorbing player to watch in the stadium, in those moments when the camera’s focus is elsewhere. Pogba gestured that he’d wanted a pass on one moment. Ibrahomic threw out a low hand gesture which said: ‘Don’t think about it.” In a break in play, he beckoned his partner Marcus Rashford towards him to issue an instruction. He is selfless too, intuiting always when to lay off and when to shoot. The private grins he always himself when he has been thwarted – a low shot touched away on 66 minutes here – tells you he’s in charge.

Rooney’s work-rate in these recent weeks has been relentless, with that trademark swing of foot in frustration when possession has gone so common. Ibrahimovic preserves his energy for the essentials of what he does. Less is more with him. Four first half goals there might have been but the afternoon’s sublime moment came when he took on his chest a ball drifted up by Pogba from Rooney’s No 10 space, swivelled and volleyed over. Such are the moments Old Trafford has missed these past three years.

All of this fuelled Mourinho’s indignation with the football writers who have been questioning him. His programme provided more evidence of it, and with Mourinho feeling the need to circle the wagons.

“In the space one week the ‘football experts’ changed their opinion,” he wrote. “That is an easy job but we will prefer ours with so many amazing moments. During the week we are not on holiday, we have no time for posh dinners in restaurants. We don’t feed the vanity of the opinion makers…. The boys need support after hearing and reading cruel comments...”

It has been the imbalance Rooney has caused at the hub of the team which the so-called experts have been discussing, of course. Mourinho knows that and Rooney, too. Old Trafford did not exactly rise to his feet when he arrived for the last ten minutes. Though football can always surprise, it already seems like a long way back into contention for him in games that actually matter.

Independent News Service

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