LONDON: Having spectacularly exploded doubts about his age since joining Manchester United, Zlatan Ibrahimovic approaches Sunday’s League Cup final against Southampton seeking a second triumph of the season at Wembley Stadium.
The 35-year-old made his first official United appearance at Wembley in August’s Community Shield against Leicester City, a towering late header giving him the 29th trophy of his career.
He returns having confirmed that early promise with a further 23 goals in 35 games and having done more than any other player to keep Jose Mourinho’s side on course for success on four fronts.
“People that know me know that I play in many clubs and I try to do my best,” Ibrahimovic said recently.
“Wherever I went I won, so I am like Indiana Jones.”
Famed for his larger-than-life ‘Zlatan’ persona, Ibrahimovic has not disappointed English football fans, his provocative soundbites including a claim that his critics have been made to “eat their balls”.
But while the Swede was always expected to provide regular material for Britain’s tabloid headline-writers, his impact on the pitch has taken many by surprise.
Having gorged on silverware during a four-year stint at Paris Saint-Germain, Ibrahimovic, it was felt, would struggle to adapt to the break-neck pace and cut-troat competitiveness of the Premier League.
Instead he has thrived, scoring at a rate not seen since Robin van Persie’s time at Old Trafford and keeping United in contention for glory in the League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League and a top-four finish in the Premier League.
In helping to restore belief within a squad besieged by negativity under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, he has even earned comparisons with Eric Cantona, catalyst supreme of the Alex Ferguson era.
– ‘Unbelievable’ –
“I think there’s similarities because of that confidence they have in their own ability and the goals that they have scored,” says former United midfielder Ryan Giggs.
“It didn’t faze Eric or Ibrahimovic, coming to United and being the number-one player.
“Even when they are playing well and getting all the adoration, they don’t get carried away.
“It’s their job and you can see that he is a good professional. He is always fit and at his age to play centre-forward and to produce the goals he is producing is unbelievable.”
Whereas he strolled all over the pitch during his PSG days, Ibrahimovic has streamlined his game in England, relying more on his formidable aerial prowess and penalty-box nous.
His first United hat-trick, in last week’s 3-0 win over Saint-Etienne, was bereft of the usual Ibrahimovic sheen, his goals coming via a deflected free-kick, a tap-in and a dubious self-won penalty.
A key element in his successful adaptation, and to United’s renaissance in general, has been his burgeoning relationship with fellow star signing Paul Pogba.
The pair quickly found the same wavelength and Pogba is forever looking for his number nine with lofted balls over the top of opposing defences.
The France midfielder has supplied five assists since returning from Juventus and all have been for Ibrahimovic, a formula seen most recently in last weekend’s 2-1 FA Cup win at Blackburn Rovers.
“I knew that (Ibrahimovic) would be a very important player for us,” Mourinho said at Ewood Park.
“I knew that for sure. One more goal, one less goal, but I knew that the contribution would be massive for us.”