JOSE Mourinho has found his new Didier Drogba. Even if Manchester United didn’t deserve this victory, on the balance of play, the dream now is that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has only just started his trophy collection at Old Trafford.
Drogba, of course, was Mourinho’s talisman in his glory days at Chelsea. He scored nine goals in nine cup finals in eight years, not all under the Special One, but all perhaps inspired by him; and he started it with a League Cup final, in 2005.
Now, Ibrahimovic, with the same ruthless power and determination, has recreated history with his two goals at Wembley, against unlucky Southampton; and it feels, once again, like the start of a new era.
Zlatan was, despite all the excellent play from Claude Puel’s side, the difference in the end, just as Drogba had been so many times before, in blue rather than red; and Zlatan’s bullet header, which clinched victory, took his goal tally to 26 for the season.
“This is what I came for,” he said afterwards. “I came to win, and I am winning. The more I win, the more satisfied I get. You appreciate it more the older you get. Wherever I have gone, I have won. I think this is trophy number 32 for me. This is what I predicted. To many, I could not do it. My friend, I keep doing it...”
Perhaps we should have guessed it would end this way. The Swede had scored four goals in the four domestic cup finals he played for Paris St-Germain, including two in the 2015 Coupe de la Ligue final, against Bastia, and two more in the 2016 Coupe de France final, against Marseille. He also scored, of course, in the Community Shield victory for United, over Leicester, last August.
Now, he has done it again and the only disappointment for United is that they found their Drogba at the age of 35, rather than 25. Even so, there is every opportunity for Mourinho’s side to make this the first of many — for a start, they still have big opportunities in both the FA Cup and Europa League this season — and to recreate the kind of trophy haul that the Special One collected in west London.
One word of caution, however, because the performance, if not the result, suggests Mourinho has still to find the perfect formula, despite taking home the trophy. Yes, United were ruthless, when given opportunities to score, but defensively, at times, they were shocking, against a Southampton team that played with pace and width from the very start and which caused no end of problems.
The amount of space United afforded players such as Nathan Redmond, Dusan Tadic, and Manolo Gabbiadini was frightening, with Marcos Rojo, in particular, guilty of mindless and poor-quality defending.
Even at 2-0, they never looked comfortable and Southampton’s recovery to 2-2 was not a surprise. It was well-deserved.
But, of course, all that won’t be remembered. What will be remembered is that this was Mourinho’s first trophy at Manchester United, and perhaps the first of many.
This, remember, was the competition that set him on his way to seven cups in two spells at Chelsea — and so the hope at Old Trafford was always that this Wembley trip would be just the start in a new era for a club finally reinventing itself following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Mourinho had already won the League Cup three times before kick-off — in 2005, against Liverpool, when he was sent off for taunting Reds fans; in 2007, against Arsenal, and in 2008, against Spurs. Win number four puts him right up there alongside Ferguson and Brian Clough as the most successful manager of all time in the competition, even if he refused to accept the significance of the stat.
“For the club, it is important, for me not so much,” he said. “I am thinking about the club, fans, and players. For me, a victory is always better than a defeat — one more trophy is always better. But I am focused on the club and evolution and no better way to evolve than with a trophy.”
Make no mistake, there is still some evolving to do — and a lot of hard work to go with it — but things are certainly moving in the right direction at United, now they have a winner in charge and a talisman up-front. The most popular chant on the Stretford End, these days, contains the lines: “Woke up this morning feeling fine, I’ve got United on my mind. Jose’s got us playing the way we should — something tells me I’m into something good.”
It looks like the fans have got it right. There could be good times ahead.
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