Soon after the confirmation that Manchester United would not be extending the services of 35-year old center-forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, my mind raced back to early June last year, when all eyes were on France and the European Championships – and how excited I was at the thought of a certain Swede holding the famous red shirt and smiling at the cameras, exuding the aura of a king arriving at the battlefield he has yet to conquer.
Twelve months, twenty-eight goals and two major trophies later, the expedition has seemingly reached its end – but not without achieving the targets it set out to achieve – despite a few lost battles along the course, the war, after all, has been won.
In this piece, we will look at some of the key moments in the career of Ibrahimovic in chronological order – in Manchester, a city he embraced with open arms, like one of his goal celebrations.
Ibrahimovic signs for Manchester United – Announcement on Instagram
After months of speculation, Zlatan Ibrahimovic made the decision to rejoin Mourinho at Manchester United, on a free transfer. In a typical Ibrahimovic fashion, the announcement was made by the player himself ahead of everyone else including the club, through the medium of Instagram. Speaking to the club in a fascinating interview, he said that he did not want to waste his time checking the oft-gloomy weather in Manchester – he said he wanted to win and would do anything it took to win. And win, he did.
A Goal-Glut Introduction
One could not have imagined a better start at a new club, in a new country, at the age of 35, except unless you are Zlatan Ibrahimovic himself. The Swede scored within minutes of his debut in pre-season – in a friendly against Galatasaray – with an acrobatic effort, almost indicating that he was ready for a physical battle in the most demanding of leagues at the highest level.
This was followed by goals against Leicester City – a winner at Wembley in the Charity Shield, away at Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium on the opening day of the new season, a brace in the home debut against Southampton, making it five goals in four matches. The Swedish express was up and running – with full speed ahead, leaving others in its wake.
An Important goal at Old Trafford
On September 30, Manchester United would play their second group A fixture in the Europa League – needing nothing less than a win and 3 points, following a first-round defeat to Feyenoord at De Kuip. The Red Devils started the game nervously and although they had plenty of the ball, the timidness and a lack of imagination restricted them to fewer opportunities in front of goal than they would have liked to create.
After the half-time whistle putting a temporary end to a drab goalless affair, it was the Swede who would break the deadlock at long last and by doing so, get Manchester United going. It was almost symbolic, at the time, in that – the slumbering beast that was United, was finally awoken – in Europe, at least, where they would go on to win four of the next five games and qualify for the knockout rounds.
An Unexpected Halt
The honeymoon period was over and the Swede, like any other forward, entered a period of lull – in terms of goals-scoring, in fact he faced his longest drought since the days at Inter Milan almost a decade ago. The 35-year old only scored in 1 goal in 11 games in all competitions between the first Manchester derby in early September and the trip to Swansea in the first weekend of November.
His barren spell in front of goal also coincided with Manchester United’s worst run (3 draws and 2 defeats in 7 games) in the Premier League which only went on to establish just how reliant the Red Devils were on one player to deliver goals and subsequently, results.
Within weeks of his arrival, Ibrahimovic had already become the focal point of a fairly functional team that Mourinho was trying to assemble in his first season.
A Decisive December
The recovery of Ibrahimovic’s personal form in December was very crucial to United in their mini-revival in the Premier League – which kick-started the nine-game winning streak in all competitions, laying a platform on which they built on, in the second half.
He scored in tough places, against rugged mid-table sides – the opening goal at Goodison Park in a 1-1 draw, in Ukraine when United needed a win to seal their progression in the Europa League, a late winner at Selhurst Park to grab all three points, an early opener to snatch maximum points at the Hawthorns and the winner at Old Trafford against Sunderland on Boxing Day to bag three more points.
United chipped away at the gap between themselves and the top four and Ibrahimovic was the one wielding the axe.
The Hat-trick against St.Etienne
United had drawn French side St.Etienne in the Round of 32 after finishing runner-up in their group. With an FA Cup encounter away at Blackburn sandwiched in-between the two legged affair, it was imperative that they gained a considerable lead, to defend in their trip to France for the return leg. And so they did.
It was Ibrahimovic again, who delivered in Europe as Manchester United struggled to balance the mounting fixture congestion. After opening the scoring via a free-kick from 20-odd yards out, he was there in the right place at the right time to tap home the second which was followed by a spot-kick to complete his first hat-trick for Manchester United, which effectively sent them to the last 16.
The Talisman at Wembley Again
Manchester United reached their second cup final in under ten months – where they played a Southampton that had not conceded a single goal until that point, at the capital. The Saints were clearly the better side in the first few minutes and once again, the inspiration was provided by Ibrahimovic – in the form of a well-taken free kick – whizzing past a helpless Fraser Forster.
As Lingard scored the second on the night, Southampton roared back into the final, thanks to a brilliant brace from Italian Manolo Gabbiadini – who would argue he had scored a hat-trick instead. But when the clock ticked on towards what looked at extra-time, the 35-year old had his final say – with a timely winner in the 87th minute handing United its first piece of silverware under Jose Mourinho.
Amidst the celebrations, Ibrahimovic managed to get the message across, in a way, only he could. In a quick verbal exchange, he demonstrated why he had the trophy-laden career that he has had and why he would not stop.
Interviewer “Has it gone better than you hoped when you signed?”
Zlatan “No, no. I knew what I could do, and now I’m doing it. Many people said I could not do it any more. My friend, I keep going.”
And there he pocketed, what was his 32nd trophy.
A Forgettable Night
United faced Belgian side Anderlecht in the second leg of Europa League Quarter Final – with a slender away goal advantage. On a night filled with unease and tension as the Red Devils labored on – missing chance after chance, they finally overcame the visitors with a fine and composed finish from Marcus Rashford.
But the win and relief at making it to the last four was tainted as it came at the expense of a season-ending knee injury to Ibrahimovic, who probably had his worst night in front of goal, failing to convert a fair few gilt-edged opportunities.
A mistimed landing brought his first season and potentially a longer career at Man United to an abrupt end, but with a haul that included 28 goals and 8 assists in all competitions, the general feeling around the stadium on the night was – job well done on his part.
First taste of European Silverware
There is no denying that it was an anti-climax for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to not be leading the line in a European final in his home – at the stadium, where he would be immortalised in a statue.
But the result, thankfully, did not go against the script and general narrative as Mourinho led the Red Devils to their fifth European trophy (and his fourth) and thereby completing the set.
One of the most memorable images in the post-match celebrations would be the Swede lifting the 15-kg heavy and handle-less trophy in the air with one hand – while the other, free of crutches that he needed to navigate his way around the stadium – adorned with banners bearing his name and fans singing his fame.