Manchester United 2 Southampton 0: Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice as Jose Mourinho kicked off life at Old Trafford with a comfortable Friday night victory over Southampton.
It was a brilliant start to life in Manchester for the former Paris Saint-Germain striker who United fans believe has the bravado to make a similar impact to cult hero Eric Cantona — the man who transformed United into winners nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Ibrahimovic has already claimed that he’s up to the challenge: “I won’t be King of Manchester, I will be God of Manchester,” he said in the summer when asked about the comparisons.
And he showed he has the quality to back up his words as he scored his third and fourth goals for his new club in just three appearances.
His 36th minute opener was a sublime header, which was followed by a 52nd minute penalty that killed off Southampton’s challenge.
And it shows why, despite a run of finishing seventh, fourth, and fifth, United are realistic title challengers.
After three years of inertia under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, the fear factor of the Alex Ferguson era has finally returned to the Theatre of Dreams.
Mourinho has won the Premier League title three times with Chelsea and his own unshakeable self-belief that he can do it again in his first season at Old Trafford has rubbed off on his players and the United faithful.
The Portuguese would not necessarily have been welcome as Fergie’s direct successor due to his Chelsea connections, but after three seasons of often dire football, Mourinho is now seen by most as the man capable of bringing back the good times.
And, not only is there an X factor in the dugout but there’s a star quality out on the pitch with the swaggering style of Ibrahimovic alongside the world’s most expensive player in Paul Pogba.
Not that Pogba looked like a €105m player in a nervy start — more like the reject who was shown the door by Fergie four years ago with United preferring to bring Paul Scholes out of retirement in his place.
Pogba’s first touch last night was a shocker as he gave the ball away for a lightning fast Saints break that resulted in a free-kick in the edge of the area, which Dusan Tadic drilled into the wall.
Indeed it wasn’t an overly impressive start from United and the opening half-hour was reminiscent of the dull Van Gaal era, with United struggling to create opportunities.
Mourinho had called for more noise from the Old Trafford crowd and he was rewarded with an enthusiastic welcome when he made his way down the touchline for his first game in charge at his new home.
The Portuguese prowled his technical area for the full 90 minutes, in sharp contrast to his predecessor who remained in his seat throughout the game, studiously making notes. Mourinho whipped them into action with a series of theatrical reactions to refereeing decisions with which he disagreed.
It didn’t have much of an effect on his side until the first goal, which came almost out of the blue. Wayne Rooney, playing behind Ibrahimovic despite Mourinho insisting he would only play him as a striker, was given time to whip in a cross. The Swede rose imperiously to power in a header into the corner of the net that gave Saints keeper Fraser Forster no chance.
Ibrahimovic had strutted around Old Trafford arrogantly for the opening 30 minutes without much impact but showed in an instant why Mourinho wants him to lead his side.
It was marvellous header, although Jose Fonte — a potential target of United before the transfer window shuts at the end of the month — was caught under the ball. And it may cost him a move north.
Southampton battled throughout and thought they had an equaliser shortly after the break when Tadic headed past David de Gea but the Serb had pushed Daley Blind as he scored.
They were punished two minutes later when Luke Shaw went down in the box after a soft challenge from substitute Jordy Clasie. Ibrahimovic making no mistake from the spot, sending Forster the wrong way.
Pogba, who did settle but without reaching the high standards of his Juventus days, was desperate to mark his return with a goal but sent a header high over the bar in the 65th minute and drilled an injury time strike off-target.
De Gea 6, Valencia 7, Bailly 7, Blind 6, Shaw 7, Pogba 6, Fellaini 6, Mata 6 (Mkhitaryan 75, 5), Rooney 6 (Smalling 88), Martial 6 (Herrera 81, 5), Ibrahimovic 8. Subs not used: Romero, Young, Rashford, Schneiderlin.
Forster 6, Cedric 7, Van Dijk 6, Fonte 6, Targett 6, Romeu 5 (Clasie 11, 5), Hojbjerg 6, Davis 6 (Austin 66, 5), Tadic 6, Redmond 7, Long 7 (Rodriguez 83, 5). Subs not used: McCarthy Yoshida, Ward-Prowse, Pied.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved