Wednesday 13 December 2017

Zlatan Ibrahimovic well on the way now to 'legend' status at Manchester United

Man United 3 Southampton 3

Zlatan Ibrahimovic heads home the winner at Wembley. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Zlatan Ibrahimovic heads home the winner at Wembley. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

"The legend can still deliver," proclaimed Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer. And the legend did deliver.

In a thrilling EFL Cup final it was the 35-year-old striker who had the last word, as he collected his first trophy at Manchester United and the first for manager Jose Mourinho.

Manchester United's Michael Carrick celebrates victory. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Manchester United's Michael Carrick celebrates victory. Photo credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire

This competition is where it all began in England for Mourinho 12 years ago, when he won the League Cup in his first season as Chelsea manager, as part of a new era of success, and he will demand the same at United, although his overriding emotion appeared to be one of relief.

After the trauma of being sacked by Chelsea, the ultimate trophy-hunter is back on the winning trail.

The fact that United were incredibly fortunate to win this final, as Southampton dominated the match and were denied a perfectly good goal by a terrible offside decision when the game was scoreless, will be almost airbrushed.

History will show that United won, that Mourinho has now won the League Cup four times, to equal the record of Alex Ferguson, who was in attendance, and Brian Clough. He also became the first manager to win a trophy in his first season in charge of United.

Southampton's Nathan Redmond in action with Manchester United's Marcos Rojo. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay
Southampton's Nathan Redmond in action with Manchester United's Marcos Rojo. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay

Above that, this will be Ibrahimovic's final. Zlatan time. It felt dramatically predictable that just as he was set to be upstaged by Southampton's Manolo Gabbiadini, who scored two goals and would have had a hat-trick but for that errant offside decision, he intervened.

His second goal broke Southampton's hearts. There was almost an expectant hush as, with just three minutes to go, Ander Herrera stood the ball up inside the six-yard area for Ibrahimovic to plant a close-range header past Fraser Forster.

He scored with a header in his last appearance at Wembley, winning the Community Shield against Leicester City back in August, and once again this was his playground. His platform. His stage. His show.

Ibrahimovic scored that opening day, and his two here made it 26 goals in 38 matches for United - further evidence that he is the best free signing ever made and a rival to Eric Cantona as a fans' favourite.

Southampton's Sofiane Boufal in action with Manchester United's Chris Smalling. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley
Southampton's Sofiane Boufal in action with Manchester United's Chris Smalling. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley

For him it is now 30 trophies across Europe in his career, to add to Mourinho's 24, and they make quite a pair: a pair who talk the talk and walk the walk.

It was instructive as United struggled in the second-half, pegged back by Gabbiadini's predatory strikes, that three times Mourinho spoke to substitute Wayne Rooney and was, each time, close to bringing him on. Instead, he waited and waited (it was Herrera who was going to come off) - and Ibrahimovic won it.

Cruel

If ever there was a neon-lit sign of the baton having been passed then here it was. Rooney lifted the trophy but Ibrahimovic had the Cheshire-cat grin of knowing this was his.

"He gave us the cup," Mourinho, who has won 11 of the 12 cup finals he has contested, said and it said it all.

It was, he declared, a "beautiful final for the neutrals" and it was just that - but, as he also acknowledged, cruel for Southampton, who faced United in a final for the first time since their one and only major trophy triumph, the FA Cup final in 1976, but also profited from the 15 days they have had to prepare since their last game while their opponents have played four matches in 11 days.

Manchester United's Antonio Valencia in action with Southampton's Dusan Tadic. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley
Manchester United's Antonio Valencia in action with Southampton's Dusan Tadic. Photo: Reuters / John Sibley

United appeared leggy and strangely nervous, especially in defence, where Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly struggled.

Juan Mata was hooked at half-time when any one of the midfield could have been replaced.

Against that, Southampton had energy and verve, with Gabbiadini outstanding, as were Nathan Redmond, Cedric Soares and Steven Davis.

Mourinho had a face like thunder, even when United were two goals up. He knew they were fortunate that assistant referee Stuart Burt flagged to deny Gabbiadini an opening goal as the Italian stole in behind Smalling to turn home Soares's low cross.

He was clearly onside, and that was obvious even without the aid of a replay.

There were also three smart saves from David De Gea - from James Ward-Prowse, Dusan Tadic and Redmond - before United improbably took the lead.

Ibrahimovic's impressively powerful and controlled 25-yard free-kick skimmed over the wall, Davis appeared to duck or miss with an attempted header, and Forster was beaten.

Maybe the goalkeeper should have done better as Ibrahimovic became the second oldest goalscorer in a League Cup final (after Stoke City's George Eastham, at 35 years and 161 days, in 1972).

When United doubled that advantage the game appeared over. It came as Mata, Anthony Martial and Marcos Rojo combined for the latter to turn the ball infield to Jesse Lingard.

On the edge of the area he had the time, with no defender reacting, but also the composure to pass it into the net, leaving Forster stranded.

Having not conceded a goal in this competition on the way to reaching the final, Southampton had given away two cheaply.

Again Mourinho did not celebrate, and with good reason.

His team were playing poorly and paid the price just before half-time as Gabbiadini again stole in behind Smalling to reach Ward-Prowse's clever cross to open the game up.

Three minutes into the second-half Southampton were deservedly level with a wonderful strike from Gabbiadini as Davis headed a half-clearance into the area and the striker swivelled to fire low into the net.

It then became about two headers. One, from Oriol Romeu, from a corner, cannoned back off the post with De Gea beaten and then, as extra-time loomed, the other, from Ibrahimovic, won it.

The legend had handed United the Cup. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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