Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 26 goals this season and his decisive performance in the EFL Cup final have left Manchester United with a dilemma as they ponder how to keep their talisman at Old Trafford beyond the end of the season.
Anyone who watched United at Wembley against Southampton on Sunday will have been left in no doubt that Zlatan is the man holding Jose Mourinho’s team together and the man on who, certainly in the short term, they will rely for that extra bit of magic required to win trophies.
Ibrahimovic is so important to the way United play, a focal point for an otherwise inconsistent attack and midfield, that he has made 38 appearances this season and has rarely been left out, even in games when you would expect him to be offered a rest.
The problem, however, is that the Swede is now 35 and there have been some rather mixed messages over what he will do when his contract comes to an end in May, having only agreed a one-year deal when arriving on a free transfer from Paris St Germain.
Not so long ago there were reports that a second year had already been agreed in principle and most onlookers still conclude that remains the case; but Zlatan’s nomadic history and temptation to flit from project to project has got United fans a little nervous.
Mourinho insisted on Sunday that he “will not beg” for the player to sign but instead urged supporters to camp outside his house and persuade him to stay put. It was a issue which Zlatan expertly side-stepped in a wide-ranging and entertaining post-match interview in which he displayed all his customary character, self-confidence, and humour — but carefully left everyone guessing about his future.
“I think in your career you have moments,” he said. “I did not come to England before because it was not the moment. I came when I thought it was the moment and the moment was there. If we speak about the coach, England, the Premier League, the club has to thank him because he called me and asked me to come here, otherwise I would not have been here.
“Even my two kids wanted to see me play at United but at the time I had my mind somewhere else. Then my kids started to bump my head and Jose called. I have a special relationship with him. When he called it was basically, ‘tell me what number I should wear’.”
Plenty of indications there that the great Swede could stay put. How could he not do so with his mentor Mourinho in one corner and his family in the other, all encouraging him to make the same decision?
“Let’s see what happens,” was the rather more wishy-washy answer. “The kids are satisfied with what I am doing. But this time I am the boss, not them.
“Let’s see. I mean the moment, how I feel, the situation, we have another two months of the season to go.”
Before United fans get too nervous, however, there were plenty of signs of encouragement in Ibrahimovic’s demeanour as he delivered the kind of quotes and strutting post-match performance in the media mixed zone that would have made Eric Cantona proud. It was a cameo of ego, showmanship, playfulness, and immense self-confidence.
When told that Ander Herrera described Ibrahimovic as having the body of a 28-year-old, for instance, the veteran took the compliment comfortably in his stride.
“I look good, I know I look good,” he said, with no sense of irony. “I feel fresh, I feel good. I feel like an animal. I feel like a lion.”
One daring reporter was willing to ask ‘why a lion’ and got a Cantonesque response in the ensuing exchange too.
“Because I am a lion,” Zlatan said, eyes narrowing. “What? I don’t want to be a lion?”
Do you mean you’ve the hunger of a lion?
“The lion is born a lion.”
What does that mean?
“It means I’m a lion!”
Make of that what you will, but if that’s an indication of how difficult Zlatan can be to tie down then good luck to the negotiators at Old Trafford desperate to get his name on that new contract.
What is positive, however, is that Ibrahimovic removed a number of hurdles to a new deal when he answered other questions more comprehensively.
He showed little intention of considering retirement, for instance, insisting he is fit enough to continue.
He said: “I feel in good shape. I train hard. I’m from the old school where they work hard and get what they get from doing the hard work not like the new school where it is easy to get what you want.
“But what I do know is that when I stop I will stop on top. I will not play one game by being Ibrahimovic and for what I did before. If I don’t perform, if I don’t bring results, I will not play.
“I will not be like other players, playing because they make a great career and name and they are still playing because they are who they are. I will play as long as I can bring results.”
Certainly, Ibrahimovic can say he is bringing results this season and when asked if there is another country or manager he still wants to play for the answer was a clear ‘no’. It was the same answer when asked if failure to reach the Champions League would force him to leave.
“No, it’s not about that,” he said. “ I came here and the club wasn’t in the Champions League. So it had nothing to do with the Champions League. Somebody made up a story that if they don’t qualify for the Champions League I will not extend. It has nothing to do with that.”
That is a major relief for anyone across the world who follows Manchester United — and for those who report on them too. The Premier League is a better place for hosting the Zlatan show and United, with the FA Cup and Europa League still in their sights, would find him very difficult indeed to replace.
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