But at Wembley Ibrahimovic proved once again he is the man for the showpiece occasion; a serial winner who turned a wretched Manchester United performance into a victory for the ages. His headed 87th minute winner, which came after Southampton had battled back from 2-0 down, secured the 32nd major trophy of his career – and Jose Mourinho’s first as United manager.
Southampton are not the first club to be crushed by the man who modestly called his autobiography I AM ZLATAN, and they will not be the last.
His two goals here, either side of Jesse Lingard’s fine finish, takes him to 26 goals in just 38 games for United, already placing him high on the list of the club’s all-time great strikers.
Southampton, who had not played for 15 days, had been preparing for this final with a warm-weather training camp in Spain. United, meanwhile, have played three times in that period, including away trips to Blackburn and St Etienne. And it showed.
Manolo Gabbiadini had an early goal wrongly disallowed but still scored twice to level the scores. From there, it looked like the south coast club would go on to secure their first major trophy since 1976 – but then came Zlatan with three minutes to go.
Mourinho said: “You could feel in the game the difference in freshness. They were in Spain preparing. We were playing and travelling. Claude Puel’s team deserved extra-time, I think it’s a bit unfair for them. Southampton gave us a beautiful final for the neutral.”
Having not moved to China this week, United’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney was named among the substitutes. As ever, Ibrahimovic lead the line.
The main pre-match question regarding Puel’s selection was whether or not he would throw new signing Martin Caceres straight into the deep end. The 29-year-old former Barcelona and Juventus centre-back has not played for over a year so his manager decided against the baptism of fire which Ibrahimovic would have provided.
It meant 23-year-old Jack Stephens, who has made just five Premier League appearances, partnered Maya Yoshida at centre-back. However, the Saints arrived at Wembley having not conceded a single goal in the five games it took them to get here.
They’ve been handy at the other end too but, in the 11th minute, a miserable decision denied them a goal which would have changed the complexion of the game entirely. Cedric fired a low cross into the middle which Gabbiadini gleefully turned home from close range.
Celebrations were cut short by the linesman although replays showed Gabbiadini was level with Chris Smalling when the ball was played.
Their frustration was compounded eight minutes later when a lunge on Ander Herrera by Oriol Romeu gave Ibrahimovic the chance to try his luck from 25 yards.
And, when Southampton captain Steven Davis, on the end of the wall, barely jumped, Ibrahimovic’s effort curled into Forster’s bottom right-hand corner.
It got worse for them six minutes before the break when they were hit with a sucker punch when Marcos Rojo played in Lingard to steer home the second.
United had been far from their best but it looked like they would cruise into the interval nearly home and hosed. But, in stoppage time, Gabbiadini prodded Ward-Prowse’s low cross through De Gea’s legs to change both managers’ half-time team talks.
Southampton were straight on the front foot after the break and forced a succession of corners. De Gea was at full stretch to keep a stinging Nathan Redmond volley out but could do nothing to prevent a brilliant Gabbiadini finish moments later.
It did not look as though Southampton were done there and they kept pouring forward in search of a third. Romeu nearly found it just past the hour mark but his header bounced back off the post with De Gea at full stretch.
United had to wait until the 76th minute for another genuine sight of goal but Lingard, having chested Martial’s cross down at the back post, could only lash his effort over. With seven minutes left, Puel decided to withdraw Gabbiadini for Shane Long, who almost claimed the decisive goal five minutes from time, but just missed Bertrand’s low cross from the left.
Instead, it was United who struck as extra-time loomed. Martial spread the ball wide to Herrera who lifted an inch-perfect cross into the centre, where Ibrahimovic rose to nod the simplest of finishes beyond Forster.
“It’s very hard to lose this game but this is football,” said Puel, who must now pick up the pieces. It’s cruel, it’s very hard. I think for the next game of course it’s difficult to lift the players. It’s important to return to the League with this strength and quality.”
De Gea 7; Valencia 6, Smalling 5, Bailly 6, Rojo 6; Herrera 6, Pogba 6; Lingard 7 (77 Rashford 6), Mata 6 (46 Carrick 6), Martial 6 (90 Fellaini); Ibrahimovic 8.
Rooney, Blind, Young, Romero.
Forster 7; Cedric 7; Stephens 6, Yoshida 6, Bertrand 7; Romeu 6, Ward-Prowse 7; Redmond 8, Tadic 6 (77 Boufal 6), Davis 7 (90 Rodriguez ); Gabbiadini 8 (83 Long 6).
Hassen, Caceres, McQueen, Hojbjerg.
Andre Marriner 7.