Age­less Ibra not ready for pas­ture

Stylish Swede backs up blus­ter with timely goals

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in Manch­ester, Eng­land

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.

DAVE THOMP­SON / AP

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.

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