Zlatan brings back the Devil
Swede superstar makes Manchester United angry and aggressive again
|WEST BROM||MAN UNITED|
(Zlatan Ibrahimovic 5, 56)
The camera never lies and it revealed an inconvenient truth about Manchester United.
The club's season will rise or fall with the fortunes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Campaigns should not be carried on the backs of 35-year-old men, but no one swigs from the elixir of life quite like the Swede.
He knows that time remains the only undefeated opponent, but he intends to go down swinging nonetheless.
Wayne Rooney knows it, too.
The camera caught his priceless expression just before United's clinical 2-0 win at West Brom yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Rooney, the armband-wearer for both club and country, the talisman of a nation's foolish dreams for a decade, essentially got told off.
He was giggling with a teammate in the tunnel. The big man was not amused.
He was not coming for the money, he was not coming for the prestige. He was coming to enjoy his football and play for one of the best teams in the world.Man United manager Jose Mourinho on Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Ibrahimovic made eye contact with his skipper and inhaled, raising his arms in that universal football gesture that left no room for misinterpretation.
Focus. Lift your game.
Rooney, United's nominal captain, did as he was told.
That's what Ibrahimovic brings to United, enigmatic, leadership qualities that vanished shortly after Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
In my mind, I’m fresh. I’m like a 20-year-old boy. I feel fresh, I feel good and I’ll keep going.Ibrahimovic
That's what Jose Mourinho signed - a fearless, uncompromising presence in the dressing room. He's never won a title without one.
United probably won't lift the silverware this season, but wherever they end up will be due in large part to a striker almost old enough to be Marcus Rashford's father.
Ibrahimovic's two goals took his astonishing tally to 11 in 16 EPL games - or 10 in his last nine appearances in all competitions.
But the other statistic is the more pertinent one. He's featured in 25 of United's 27 matches this season, including the Community Shield. Ibrahimovic just won't quit.
He eyeballs his manager in the same belligerent fashion he glared at his skipper in the tunnel, practically daring Mourinho to rest him.
His consistent finishing inevitably leads to lazy comparisons with Ruud van Nistelrooy or Robin van Persie.
But, in terms of temperament, aura and influence, he bears closer resemblance to that flinty-eyed firebrand from Ireland.
Roy Keane was the most devilish Red of them all, but Ibrahimovic may be his spiritual successor.
It's worth remembering that the tepid Louis van Gaal era reached its dreary nadir in a 1-0 defeat in March, when the opponents were also the Baggies.
West Brom were no less resilient yesterday morning, but the psychological make-up of Mourinho's men has improved.
DEVILS STEP UP
Apart from the organised 4-3-3 offering greater stability, Phil Jones has rediscovered the versatility that not only makes him a modern Phil Neville, in a good way, but has also improved Marcos Rojo alongside him.
Michael Carrick's fine wine, still improving with age, makes United's midfield more palatable and allows Paul Pogba to at least occasionally look like the Juventus behemoth he once was.
And Mourinho might make a reliable winger of Jesse Lingard yet, if the Englishman's fine cross for Ibrahimovic's opener was any indication.
But United's goals and their durability, conspicuous by their absence in the previous trip to the Hawthorns, were determined by the freakish being up front.
He boasts the physical bluntness of a starved bull and sports the ponytail of a Barbie doll, but Ibrahimovic leads by extraordinary example.
He also leads with his elbows.
The Swede's heavy challenge against Craig Dawson, shouldering the defender long after the ball had gone, earned a yellow. On another day, it might have been red.
Like Keane before him, Ibrahimovic stomps a fine line between inspirational and idiotic.
But he brings a necessary aggression that his teammates have sorely missed in recent years.
United are on song with the Swede. But then, the devil has all the best tunes.