“This is what I am doing. I think this is trophy No. 32 for me. Wherever I have gone I have won.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was speaking after his brace secured Manchester United’s dramatic 3-2 EFL Cup final victory over Southampton at Wembley last weekend.
The towering Swede’s first-half free-kick and late headed winner took his tally for the season to 26 goals from 38 games; not bad for a 35-year-old.
When United signed Ibrahimovic on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, many doubted his ability to perform at the highest level; his 50 goals for the French champions last season were ignored, citing a lack of competition, and his struggles with Sweden at Euro 2016 were pointed to as evidence of his decline.
Yet the supremely confident former AC Milan and Barcelona striker’s self-belief never wavered, and his performances for the Red Devils have rendered the dissenting voices silent.
“The others didn’t see it,” he said. “Apparently, to many, I could not do it. I keep doing what I am doing every year.”
“I’m enjoying the game — the only thing is that I am enjoying it here in England now.”
It certainly seems as though Ibrahimovic is enjoying his football – perhaps almost as much as he enjoys proving people wrong. The EFL Cup is the 32nd trophy that he has lifted in his illustrious career, and the veteran marksman even joked that he has a whole house to store his medals in.
Not just a man for the big occasion, but for all occasions; Ibrahimovic has found the net three times at Wembley already (once in the Community Shield against Leicester City and twice on Sunday), as well as scoring against rivals Manchester City and Liverpool, while also boosting his strike rate with goals against the likes of Swansea City, Sunderland and Watford.
After overcoming a six-game scoreless run in October, Ibrahimovic has grown into the role of United’s primary leader, the on-field embodiment of his manager just as Roy Keane was for Sir Alex Ferguson. When the Red Devils need a goal, they look to their talismanic striker.
His hat-trick against old Ligue 1 foe Saint-Étienne ensured United’s safe passage through to the last 16 of the Europa League, while he was also the man to come off the bench and rescue Mourinho’s men against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, connecting with a Paul Pogba pass to fire the away side ahead just 13 minutes after entering the fray.
His technique, experience and world class pedigree has seen him assimilate to the rigours of Premier League football quickly and more readily than most thought possible.
What, above all else, has made him so vital to United this season, however, is his winning mentality.
With the benefit of hindsight it is now abundantly apparent why Mourinho was so keen to bring Ibrahimovic with him to Old Trafford this summer. The two worked together for one season at Inter Milan and obviously left a lasting impression on each another.
“A player who gave me as much as Ibra will always be in my heart,” Mourinho said of their time together in Milan. “He is very special, he is one of the best strikers in the world.”
Ibrahimovic wrote glowingly of the Portuguese coach in his autobiography, I Am Zlatan: “Mourinho would become a guy I was basically willing to die for.”
Mourinho recognises that Ibrahimovic’s immense talent is perhaps only outweighed by his desire to win, to succeed at all costs and to be remembered as one of the game’s greats by the time he retires.
He may, at times, come across as self-interested in this way, but the Swede is perfectly cognisant of the fact that his own success cannot come without the backing of a harmonious team. And with United’s squad comprised of many budding young players such as Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly, who better for them to learn at the feet of than the man who has won league titles in four different countries?
Mourinho knows that, even with the grand investment his squad received last summer, he is faced with a mammoth task in righting the wrongs of the post-Ferguson era at Old Trafford.
There is no quick fix in this regard and his project, although he has claimed the first major trophy available to him, is a long-term one.
With Ibrahimovic in his side, though, Mourinho has both a highly effective player with a couple years left in him at the highest level, and a consummate pro whose influence, he hopes, will be felt long after he has departed Mancheser.
Yet to commit to a second season at the Theatre of Dreams, Ibrahimovic has been coy on whether he will stay beyond the current campaign.
Mourinho is desperate for his No.9 to stick with him for another year, and jokingly encouraged supporters to implore the 35-year-old to extend his contract: “If it is needed Manchester United fans can go to the door of his house and stay there all night,” he said after the EFL Cup triumph.
“We all want and we all believe he will stay with us one more season.”
Without giving too much away, Ibrahimovic is taking his United career one game at a time; or maybe that should be one trophy at a time.
“This is what I came for — I came to win and I am winning. I just have to keep going but the more I win the more satisfied I get.
“You appreciate it more the older you get.”