Zlatan Ibrahimovic doesn’t do stretchers. When he suffered a potentially career-threatening injury against Anderlecht in the Europa League, the giant Swede managed to hobble off the pitch unaided. As his later social media posting suggested, a man who prides himself on defying the ageing process was not going to allow anything as minor as a ruptured cruciate to precipitate his retirement. Only Zlatan can call time on his playing days.
But the truth is that injury has, in all likelihood, signalled the end of his relationship with Manchester United. He told us when he arrived in England that those writing obituaries of his career were being somewhat premature. How right he turned out to be. Sadly, now might be the time to re-post the eulogies. Signed on a one-year contract, it seems improbable the club will offer a new deal to someone who will not be able to play for a substantial part of next season, particularly not when he will be close to 37 when he is able to return.
It would be a huge disappointment if the relationship between United and the great Swede turns out to have been only the most fleeting. He may have gone after less than a full season but this is a player whose goals, skill and self-confidence lit up Old Trafford. Never less than magnificent to watch, even at his most frustratingly profligate, there was something compelling about him on a football field. That red United shirt fitted him to perfection. He always looked as if he belonged.
And yet the misfortune of seeing such a talent depart the scene should be tempered by this thought: look at the player likely to replace him. In Marcus Rashford, Jose Mourinho has the most compelling of options. What’s more, watching Rashford in action, observing his pace, his tenacity, his technique, it is hard to deny the insistence that the timing is felicitous. Now is surely the moment to utilise him properly. Not as a bit-part player, not as an occasional wing man but as the main striker, leading the line, terrifying opposing defences with the range and depth of his talent.
Here’s why. For much of this season, Rashford has looked like a player suffering from second album syndrome. After bursting on to the scene last year he appeared to be the complete forward. But as that initial adrenalin rush of enthusiasm faded, his game dipped. Mourinho was absolutely right in his analysis: this was a player who lacked nothing in his attitude, his approach, his work rate. What was missing was confidence. Not to mention goals. For a substantial period he couldn’t buy one.
There are plenty of reasons for that. One might well be exhaustion, mental as much as physical. Another that opposing defenders, no longer caught by surprise, had found ways to counter his skills. But equally potent is the theory that, with Zlatan’s arrival at the club last summer, he had been given clear evidence that he was not to be regarded as the main man. Sure, there would be games on the wing, or games in his preferred position as centre-forward when the big man was rested. But the ultimate responsibility of leading the line was to rest on someone else’s shoulders.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: Zlatan's sad end has one positive: unleashing remarkable Rashford