Sunday 21 January 2018

Ibramhimovic refuses to be upstaged as Pogba sparkles on United debut

Manchester United 2-0 Southampton

Zlatan Ibrahimovic rises highest to open the scoring at Old Trafford last night Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
Zlatan Ibrahimovic rises highest to open the scoring at Old Trafford last night Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

Jason Burt

It was Paul Pogba's debut return for Manchester United following his £89m world record transfer; it was Jose Mourinho's first competitive match at home but under the Friday night Premier League lights nothing was going to eclipse the star that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic.


Managers Jose Mourinho and Claude Puel on the touchline Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Managers Jose Mourinho and Claude Puel on the touchline Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

With these two goals against Southampton, four now in his opening three matches, the 34-year-old striker is quickly rising to the deified status he breezily said he would achieve when he joined the club as he confirmed United at the head of the Premier League table as its second round of fixtures begin.

A new force is emerging, or re-emerging, in the red side of Manchester and Mourinho will have allowed himself a sense of satisfaction that as well as Pogba played as he started and remained for the full 90 minutes - and his presence alone represented another step change in this revolution - others responded. But then Mourinho always understood Ibrahimovic would.

Big players revel with other big players in big teams and on big nights, and Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mourinho and United knew this was an opportunity to lay down their challenge. A marker is now there for others to match.

It has been 20 years since a player tagged as the most expensive in the world has featured in the Premier League. Then it was Alan Shearer at Newcastle United and here it was Pogba. The immediate focus was, of course, on him but it was not just about him.

Paul Pogba in action for Manchester United Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Paul Pogba in action for Manchester United Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

As the United team strode out, with Ibrahimovic the last to emerge, and as Mourinho made his way down the touchline, it felt bigger at Old Trafford than it has done in recent, confidence-lashed times.

And it was Pogba who drew the first save with a dipping shot from Ibrahimovic's pass back inside. It was easily fielded by Fraser Forster although a clearer opportunity then fell to Southampton with Shane Long cushioning a cross to Dusan Tadic who lashed it over the crossbar before United were carved open down their left with Nathan Redmond's cross just running too far ahead of Tadic.

It had been another summer of upheaval for Southampton also - a change of manager with Claude Puel in charge and players going, and coming and a question mark over the future of captain Jose Fonte who is wanted by Mourinho at United and who scampered across to halt Anthony Martial in full flow.

When Long swivelled and shot into the side netting it confirmed that Southampton, who had won on their previous two visits to Old Trafford, had, in fact, made the more assured start.

Maybe Mourinho's team, this stellar cast, were trying to force it too much but they appeared more dependent on flashes of brilliance than sustained play and the crowd began to sense that also with the noise levels gradually slipping.

Still it was from one such sequence that United fashioned the first chance for Ibrahimovic who latched onto Juan Mata's header, from Pogba's dink, to acrobatically volley over before sloppy play allowed Long to be released but as Eric Bailly covered the striker shot early - snatching at it - and David De Gea easily saved.

Mourinho had seen enough and sent his substitutes - three attacking ones - to warm up. Maybe that was the trigger.

Valencia flicked the ball down the touchline, Wayne Rooney raced after it, checked, looked up and delivered a fantastic, arcing cross. Ibrahimovic's run was also superb as he checked out and then attacked the ball proving far too strong and powerful for Fonte to send a header beyond Forster.

United were in front, without playing well, and Ibrahimovic had scored again.

It was also a 12th goal for Ibrahimovic in eight matches against clubs coached by Puel whose own celebrations, at what he hoped was an equalising goal, were cut short as Tadic was deemed to have pushed before heading home.

Anthony Martial set off on a trademark dribble, cutting inside only for Forster to spill his eventual shot.

The pressure grew and, once more, Shaw worked his way into the penalty area with substitute Jordy Clasie attempting to impede him. Shaw went over, even though the contact appeared minimal, and referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot.

There was no debate as to who would take the penalty with Rooney deferring to Ibrahimovic who slammed the ball past Forster, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way, for his second goal on his home debut.

For Southampton, Redmond sliced wide, when he should have done better, and Clasie slashed a shot over. But it felt a long way back for them. They had not played badly; they had often been the more fluent side; they had exposed United but were two goals down.

The pattern of the game was Southampton neat and tidy but unable to punish, Tadic again went close with a snap-shot, while United had - as against Bournemouth in their opening fixture - emphatically taken the chances that mattered and when it mattered to kill the contest.

It may not be enough against superior opposition but Mourinho also knows all about the big 'Mo' - as opposed to the big 'Mou' - in momentum and United's is beginning to gather.

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