LONDON: Where would Manchester United be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic? It’s a question that, when this season as a whole is considered, might be tough to answer.
But on this occasion, they would be without the EFL Cup, won in a thrilling encounter against an excellent Southampton side at Wembley.
Ibrahimovic scored twice — one a brilliant free kick, the other a header — in United’s 3-2 victory, a game in which their assorted defensive frailties were exposed but made moot by the big Swede.
Jesse Lingard got United’s other, while the unlucky Manolo Gabbiadini’s brace for Southampton was ultimately for nothing.
Southampton had the ball in the net after 11 minutes, as Gabbiadini turned home a low cross from Cedric Soares on the edge of the six-yard box.
The linesman’s flag went up, but replays suggested the Italy international was level with the last man; Ryan Bertrand was in an offside position on the far side, but not interfering with play.
United took the lead 10 minutes later and from a familiar source. Oriel Romeu chopped Ander Herrera to the ground around 30 yards from goal and Ibrahimovic curled the ball into the bottom corner, past a grasping Fraser Forster.
Southampton got back into the game and managed to find plenty of spaces in the United defence, but couldn’t convert any of their play into a goal.
And they paid for it eight minutes before the break, when some lax or non-existent closing down allowed Marcos Rojo to play in Jesse Lingard, who slid the ball home. That’s his second goal in major finals inside nine months.
Just before the break, Southampton pulled one back in a manner similar to the goal they had disallowed: again Cedric crossed from the right and again Gabbiadini was there six yards out to poke home.
This time the linesman remained unmoved and Saints were back in the game.
And it was only a few minutes after the break when they were truly back, as Gabbiadini grabbed a second.
Southampton attacked from the start and won a corner on the right, which was only half-cleared, fell to the forward – who hit a superb snap shot on the turn – catching the ball at the top of its bounce and surprising the whole United defence, none of whom moved until it nestled in the corner.
The remainder of the half swung both ways, as Saints attacked with gusto and United replied with periods of dominance themselves.
Mourinho brought on Marcus Rashford to add a little more impetus to their play and while he didn’t have a great deal of impact on the game, United soon punched through.
With the clock running down, United launched a counter-attack; a cross came over from the right and Ibrahimovic was there, about eight yards out, to head home. A few hairy moments remained, but they hung on to win Mourinho’s first major trophy as United boss.
Ibrahimovic’s second goal was his 26th in 38 games this season and it’s not even the end of February. It was his 20th goal in his last 22 games.