What a way to insist on your indispensability. With seconds remaining at Old Trafford, and his team’s unbeaten record about to disappear, Zlatan Ibrahimovic stepped up to score the penalty that gave his team a point. And kept their stuttering league position alive.
After an enforced lay off, the Swede returned to a United front line which had been bereft of his guile, his cunning, and more to the point his goals. He came back in no mood to prevaricate.
Speaking on Manchester United’s in-house television station MUTV before kick-off, the club’s leading scorer made his contractual position more than clear. He needed some demonstration of title-winning ambition, he insisted, if he were to sign on for another season. What he wanted to hear was noises of intent.
“I’m 35. It’s not like I’m 20 and I have another five or 10 years. Probably I have one, two, three years so everything depends on what you want and what the club wants, what the vision of the club is because I said from day one I didn’t come here to waste time, I came here to win. If you want to win bigger then you have to create bigger.”
His return was timely. Not just for his own immediate interest in buffing up his current account. But for his team’s well-being.
Without him leading the line, United had been faltering in the Premier League at the precise moment they needed to accelerate in pursuit of a Champions League spot.
Such had been the singular failure of those who had come in to replace him that absence had given his reputation an injection of rocket fuel. Of a front quartet lambasted by Jose Mourinho for their inability to match the master finisher in the home game with West Bromwich Albion, only Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard had survived the cull of the inconsistent.
But their response to the tough love of the manager’s public ire was hardly pyrotechnic. Rashford made a few dashes down the line to no immediate effect, while Lingard disappeared into a slough of irrelevance.
And Ibrahimovic’s disdain for the failings of his colleagues was evident as United’s game quickly became ensnared in nervy errors. The shrug when a pass was misplaced, the little mime of where he wanted the ball played when he made a run and it failed to arrive, the arms out in despair when a blue shirt intervened on a through pass: all had an outing during a dispiritingly unproductive opening salvo.
But then his own contribution on his return was hardly the most persuasive of bargaining chips. Within five minutes he was played in behind the Everton defence by Ander Herrera’s shrewd dummy. Suddenly he was gifted space.
Suddenly he was baring down on goal. But he is not the most fleet-footed of predators these days. As was made clear when the identity of the defender who had outpaced him to slide in with a beautifully timed challenge was made clear. It was Ashley Williams. And, give or take the odd flick and feint, that was roughly it from him in a first half memorable only for United conceding a goal that was hardly consistent with a team to give him a title-winning swansong.
He had so little in the way of legitimate service, he was hardly able to make any telling claim to indispensability. Things did not hugely improve for him in the second half, despite the arrival from the bench of Paul Pogba, the man who has supplied most of the ammunition for him to fire this season.
With Everton exercising increasing control on the tempo and flow, with the United crowd growing more nervy and fractious, with the ball moving round in ever decreasing circles of productivity, Ibrahimovic looked more isolated, more despondent. When his diving header past Joel Robles was deemed to be from an offside position, the putative moneybags offer from LA Galaxy began to look not such a bad idea after all. Still, he is not one to be swayed by deficiency in others. And when the opportunity to take a penalty came his way, he was not one to refuse.
“I came here as a 35-year-old,” he added in his interview.
“Everybody thought I was in a wheelchair. What happened? The lion is still alive and that’s the way it is.” At the last, when it mattered, the lion roared. How many noughts has that added to his contract?