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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the big-game character Manchester United need
Last Updated: 27/02/17 2:10pm
Zlatan Ibrahimovic showed what world class really means in deciding the EFL Cup final in Manchester United's favour, writes Adam Bate.
"Bought me? I came for free. They bought you." Zlatan Ibrahimovic's words to Paul Pogba provided a light-hearted moment amid the celebrations in the immediate aftermath of Manchester United's EFL Cup final win over Southampton, but the point felt a pertinent one too.
For while Pogba is the world record signing, it is Ibrahimovic who has been United's world-class performer this season. That much was underlined in his two-goal man of the match display at Wembley on Sunday. "He was the difference," acknowledged Jose Mourinho.
The contrast between the pair did not flatter the £89m man as Pogba struggled to find his best form in a deeper role. Where the Frenchman was frustrated, Ibrahimovic was only focused. "Pogba talks the talk. Ibra walks the walk," said Phil Neville in the Sky Sports studio.
Curiously, Mourinho volunteered a positive assessment of the younger man's efforts and there is, of course, a danger in criticising the big-game credentials of quality players just because of one underwhelming display on English soil. Ibrahimovic pointed that out himself.
But as far as the star striker is concerned, the theme is clear. He, the 35-year-old free transfer, is the main man at Old Trafford. Pogba has the pressure and the hashtag, Wayne Rooney lifted the trophy but not for the first time it was Ibrahimovic who won the match.
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He has now scored 20 goals in his last 22 appearances for United, a sequence that's included what Michael Carrick described afterwards as "big important goals". Eleven times now, such as the equaliser against Liverpool, his strikes have swung things United's way.
Of course, it is about more than the goals too. "He's got guts, character and personality," Gary Neville told Sky Sports. "He's filled that shirt well. It's what the team needed and what the club needed after three years that have been tough. What a player, what an example."
His leadership was obvious. When Jesse Lingard doubled United's lead, Ibrahimovic was conspicuously urging his team-mates to concentrate even as they celebrated. The younger players might have felt the game was already won but his concerns were well founded.
These are the intangibles, but there were plenty of practical examples too. He won possession more times than United's two centre-backs combined and was a powerful presence in clearing the crosses that rained in on his team's own penalty area.
The final few minutes seemed to sum it up. First he headed away a goalbound header from Jack Stephens and then joined in the breakaway himself. When the ball finally found its way back into the Southampton box, he was there unmarked to score the winner.
LISTEN: Zlatan the difference
Zlatan Ibrahimovic showed what world class really means in deciding the EFL Cup final.
In stoppage time, he was sprinting back to close down the opposition full-back as Saints attempted to launch one final attack and with just seconds on the clock he was the one who bought the foul that ensured United would see it out. No wonder he is never substituted.
And no wonder Mourinho rates him so highly. The two men share an ethos - the mentality that winning is not so much a welcome by-product of doing the right things but the essence of it all and the measure by which they define themselves. Ibrahimovic admits as much.
"I came to win and I'm winning," he explained. "The more I win, the more satisfied I get. That's me. It's all about winning. It's all about collecting the trophies." When Phil Neville said that Ibrahimovic reminded him of Roy Keane, you swiftly understood what he meant.
Others have compared his influence to that of Eric Cantona. These are the players who are capable of creating a winning culture within a club. A culture of demanding the very best and men who are able to carry their team-mates through the important moments.
"He's won us the cup," acknowledged Carrick, although the recipient of his praise disagreed. "This is a team effort," said the Swede. "This is not about an individual." For once, he was being far too modest. He might have come for free but Ibrahimovic is priceless for United.