EFL CUP FINAL: MANCHESTER UNITED WIN FIRST TROPHY UNDER MOURINHO AT WEMBLEY
Southampton had the better final, Manchester United the better player. The one, the only, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This was his cup, even more than theirs.
It was a fine game and Southampton had the best of it. Yet they were never in front and there was always the danger it would end in tears. Why? That man.
There was no significant period of the game in which United dominated, but nor was there a moment when Ibrahimovic did not look capable of being the deciding factor. What a player he is. For all his achievements across Europe, it has taken this, a season in the twilight of his career, to convince the sceptics here of his greatness.
It is more than just his 26 goals. It is occasions like this when Ibrahimovic commands the stage as only a giant of the game can. It does not matter how well his team are playing. It is irrelevant who deserves what. Zlatan decides.
On Sunday he decided the first major trophy of the season should go to United.
He decided the Community Shield should be theirs in August, too — and Jose Mourinho counts that. He bought him to make the difference and he has not disappointed. Mourinho always knew what United were getting in Ibrahimovic; now the rest of the country does, too.
He is great, make no mistake. He scored a great free-kick to put United ahead against the run of play and his goal that won the match — after Southampton had fought back — was great, too.
Started by Ibrahimovic, finished by him as well.
He is a target man in the truest sense of the term, always showing, always offering the out ball when his team-mates are pressed. A leader, too. It was noticeable when Jesse Lingard scored United’s second — another beauty, by the way — he immediately shared the joy with Ibrahimovic. It is as if he has become the father figure for the younger United players, the way Eric Cantona was to a previous generation.
Yet it would be harsh to make it so much about one man when Southampton were a huge part of this game. Arguably, they deserved to win. Southampton endured a trio of setbacks in the first half that would have crushed a lesser side. Instead, from 2-0 down, and having had a good goal disallowed, they stood level on 48 minutes.
Southampton had the best of the play, but trailed as a result of two moments of sublime individual finishing from United.
In addition, they would have opened the scoring were it not for a flag which, we now know, denied striker Manolo Gabbiadini a hat-trick.
These are bad breaks that any team can ill-afford against opponents as well-equipped as United; on such a big occasion, it must have been doubly hard to take.
Credit coach Claude Puel, too, for taking the game to United from the start. There were just two minutes on the clock when Dusan Tadic whipped the ball across the face of goal, unfortunate not to find a team-mate to administer the vital touch. A similar move, getting in behind United, but this time from the opposite flank, should have given Southampton the lead on 11 minutes.
It was Cedric on the right, hitting a low cross which was turned in by Gabbiadini. A flag was up. Ryan Bertrand was in an offside position, but he did not play the ball. Gabbiadini did, and he came from behind United’s defenders. It should have stood.
As so often happens in these circumstances, United made the most of their good fortune. In the 18th minute, Oriol Romeu was booked for a foul on Ander Herrera 25 yards from goal. Ibrahimovic stood over it, having scored four goals in his last four finals for Paris Saint-Germain. There was only going to be one taker and Ibrahimovic took full advantage of Southampton’s little errors.
Juan Mata stepped out of the wall and left an inviting gap, captain Steven Davis was distracted and did not jump to block at the vital moment, goalkeeper Fraser Forster seemed slow to react. He was beaten to his right.
Still, Southampton pressed. David de Gea saved from James Ward-Prowse and Tadic, and then it happened again. United’s second was against the run of play, too, but it is hard to say they got lucky with a goal so sweetly taken.
Anthony Martial and Mata were involved before Marcos Rojo slipped the ball to Lingard in a central position. He finished beautifully, passing the ball into the corner through Southampton legs. And that should have been it. Southampton could have easily surrendered, cup final or not.
Instead, 10 minutes later they were level, and might even have been ahead. The last meaningful attack of the first half got them back in it.
Ward-Prowse crossed and there was Gabbiadini again, timing as perfect as before, but this time getting a fair shake from the linesman. He nipped in front of his markers at the near post and diverted the ball past De Gea who, for once, seemed slow sensing the danger.
Shortly after the second-half restart, Nathan Redmond had a volley saved — but before the minute was out, Southampton had equalised. Davis outjumped Martial on the edge of the area to recycle a corner, Paul Pogba missed his header and Gabbiadini’s reactions were sharp and splendid, a shot on the turn holding off Chris Smalling.
More bad luck followed — Romeu hitting a post with a header from Ward-Prowse’s corner.
United finished strongest. Lingard put a good opportunity over and substitute Marcus Rashford forced a save from Forster, but it was Ibrahimovic whose football intelligence put some space between the teams when it mattered.
Was Mourinho preparing to substitute him when he did so, though? It looked that way. Ibrahimovic expressed some displeasure at an errant pass, neglecting to chase, and immediately Mourinho summoned Wayne Rooney from the bench.
He appeared to be talking him through instructions when Ibrahimovic had the last word. United cleared and broke. Ibrahimovic took the ball, knocked it some way ahead to gain distance, but knew he could not win the foot race. So, he laid it off.
Did he then sprint into the box? No, he’s too smart for that. He watched United build the pressure. Martial held on to the ball and made progress, gamely. He laid it out to Herrera.
Now Ibrahimovic was interested, as was Mourinho on the touchline. The striker had started his run into the box moments earlier, timing the arrival to perfection to meet a cross with a header that left Forster no chance.
Mourinho told Rooney to sit down. Ibrahimovic stayed on and Mourinho collected his 11th cup win in 13 finals.
‘Zlatan gave us the cup,’ he said, as his players cavorted with the trophy. Southampton might not have deserved to lose, but Ibrahimovic deserved to win. And, special player that he is, he was happy to carry United along with him.
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