Ageless Ibra not ready for pasture
Stylish Swede backs up bluster with timely goals
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was weeks away from joining Manchester United when he was asked if, at 34, he could cut it in what is widely regarded as the world’s most grueling league.
“Age is just a number,” Ibrahimovic said, calmly. “I’m not worried at all.”
The English Premier League is discovering that wasn’t just bluster and bravado from a player with seemingly limitless amounts of self-confidence.
At a time when games are coming thick and fast, Ibrahimovic is proving to be a standard-bearer in keeping fit and staying healthy. And, of course, scoring goals, the most crucial aspect of his job.
Now 35, Ibrahimovic has appeared in 17 of United’s 18 league matches this season, starting and finishing all of them. The only one he missed was against Arsenal on Nov 19, because of suspension.
He has played in 26 matches in all competitions this term, more than any other United player.
He’s not just being preserved for the Premier League either — he’s started twice in the English League Cup and four times in the Europa League.
There are harder-working attackers than Ibrahimovic. He would be less suited for Liverpool’s or Chelsea’s highenergy forward lines, for example.
The Swede picks his moments to produce bursts, sometimes making him appear uninterested.
Nonetheless, the stats are impressive for a man who uses his intelligence and positioning, while harnessing the work rate of younger players around him, to play the difficult lone striker role.
He is yet to sustain an injury of note at United, testament to his work with his personal physio, his retirement from international soccer with Sweden and the physical condition of someone who is a black belt in taekwondo.
“His performance doesn’t show how old he is,” said United playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Ibrahimovic still needs to be scoring, though, and he’s delivering on that side, too.
His strike in United’s 3-1 win over Sunderland on Monday took him to 50 club goals for 2016, which includes the end of his time at French champion Paris Saint-Germain, and leaves him second behind Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi (51) among players in Europe’s top five leagues.
He’s scored 17 in 26 United matches, with 11 in the past 10.
Ibrahimovic has already matched teammate Anthony Martial’s tally last season, when the France international was United’s top scorer.
Twelve strikes in the Premier League puts him one behind its leading marksman, Chelsea’s Diego Costa.
One thing is for sure, Ibrahimovic is not treating his first stint in English soccer as some kind of farewell tour for his trophy-laden career, after spells with Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona and AC Milan.
“I am not really surprised because he is a very intelligent guy and he’s a very proud man,” United manager Jose Mourinho said.
“For him to decide to come to a club with the level of expectation of Manchester United and the most difficult league in the world for a striker, it’s because he knows that he can do it.
“So when we contacted him and he said, ‘Yes, I want, to’, I was sure he was not coming here to leave the Premier League without proving himself, leaving the Premier League failing at Manchester United. No way.”
Ibrahimovic signed an initial one-year deal at Old Trafford, but the club is certain to activate an extension clause that will see him stay for another 12 months.
“It is activated in his brain and it is activated also in my decisions, the owners’ and the board’s,” Mourinho said. “So, no problem.”
Ibrahimovic is currently the hottest striker in the English top flight, and could yet outstrip Messi’s haul for the year in Saturday’s home match against struggler Middlesbrough.
Managers around the country will be resting and rotating players to ease workloads over the busy Christmas period.
However, do not expect to see Mourinho give Ibrahimovic a break.
Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring in his team’s English League Cup victory over West Ham at Old Trafford in November. The 35-year-old Swede has allayed any doubts his age would hamper him in the physically demanding English game.