Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ryan Giggs: Ibrahimovic has same type of aura as Cantona - and he is just as lethal

Zlatan has all the attributes to emulate King Eric - and inspire United to the title

Eric Cantona developed into a talismanic figure
Eric Cantona developed into a talismanic figure

Ryan Giggs

When Manchester United played Paris St-Germain in the summer of 2015, the thoroughness with which we prepared under Louis van Gaal meant even for a friendly game it was my job to analyse the opposition's key strengths, and identify ways to stop them.

Despite PSG's many big names, it was obvious watching the footage that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the star of the show. At PSG he dropped so deep to get possession he would be in midfield at times and, despite his goalscoring record for the club, there were periods when he was a long way away from goal.

At PSG he controlled the ball and brought others, like Edinson Cavani and Lucas Moura, into the game. Ibrahimovic was an attacking point, a man to whom the ball was played up to in the knowledge that it would stick.

For United, Ibrahimovic is much more of an orthodox centre-forward. He holds his position, he makes the runs you would expect of an out-and-out striker. But one thing remains the same as at PSG - he still scores lots of goals.

Ibrahimovic has been a great signing for United, and a very consistent performer. He is one of those few players in the game who you can say has an aura that rather than just a reputation.

That means even at the times when he has not played at his best, the perception of him is different to what it might be of any other player.

At its simplest level, if I ask my 10-year-old son Zach who his favourite United player is, the answer inevitably comes back, "Ibra". When I ask who he thought played well in a game, the answer is the same: "Ibra".

I know at United they regard Ibrahimovic as a fantastic professional. The fact he is always fit is such an asset. The League Cup semi-final, first leg against Hull City was the first game he has missed for reasons other than a suspension and I expect him to be back for the Liverpool game tomorrow.

There have been comparisons made with the effect that Eric Cantona had when he joined United in 1992 and then Henrik Larsson in 2007, and I would agree that similarities exist.

At 26, Eric was considerably younger than Ibrahimovic and he was coming in to a very experienced United side that really should have won the First Division the previous season.

Eric scored goals and developed into the talismanic figure that any great side need. He was great for United but United were also great for him and gave him a platform to play the best football of his career.

Just as Eric had the absolute trust of Alex Ferguson so Ibrahimovic seems to have that relationship with Jose Mourinho. That is what good managers do with great players.

They back them unequivocally, even through the leans spells, because of their absolute belief that the player will deliver. It is a self-fulfilling cycle which gives the player the confidence to perform.

Like Ibrahimovic, Henrik was 35 when he came on loan in 2007. He was a superb professional whose influence was very strong in the dressing-room. He too had that capacity to be available whenever he was required.

Ibrahimovic's contribution has been improved by Michael Carrick's return to the team. Michael has the ability to spot a pass earlier than most and he is able to ping a ball at just the right weight and angle for a striker to get on to it.

Ibrahimovic is smart. The runs he makes are economical and he does not use up his energy chasing down defenders and goalkeepers in the way that a young one like Marcus Rashford can do.

He is also a great header of the ball, which means he will always have a ready source of goals.

Liverpool will be aware that the United team they are coming up against are, on the whole, a very powerful collections of individuals and tall too. That poses challenges for a side whose best asset is their energy and intensity.

They have lost Sadio Mané to the African Cup of Nations and there are doubts over keeper Loris Karius despite a good game against Southampton in the League Cup.

That defeat will pose questions to Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool. What is their priority? They have a tough run of games: United tomorrow, the FA Cup replay against Plymouth, the home league game against Swansea, the second leg of the semi-final against Southampton and then Chelsea, all before the end of the month.

At the start of the season I thought that Liverpool were title contenders because of the signings they had made and the fact Klopp had a better idea of English football.

I have not changed my mind but given that Philippe Coutinho is only just coming back, and the recent form of the team, Liverpool will be glad of a draw at Old Trafford.

We were always confident when Liverpool came to Old Trafford. We got the impression that they did not like playing there any more than we liked Anfield.

Of course there were times when it went badly for United at home, the 3-0 defeat in 2014; the 4-1 defeat in 2009 when Fernando Torres was so sharp and those two Danny Murphy winners in 2002 and 2004.

Two months ago United fans would have faced this game with trepidation but they will expect to win tomorrow.

It is not that often that I come across a player who also has 13 league titles to his name, though you would need to be a brave man to remind Ibrahimovic that in Italy they chalked off the two he won at Juventus. There's no shame in only having 11!

And if he gets two more at United over this season and next, he will go down as one of the Old Trafford greats.

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