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Friday, August 18, 2017


Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovich celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Blackburn Rovers to fire his team into the quater finals of the FA Cup on Suinday./COURTESY
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovich celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Blackburn Rovers to fire his team into the quater finals of the FA Cup on Suinday./COURTESY

It is a fact that will be gnawing away at Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For all the goals, medals and adulation, significant silverware remains absent from his glittering cabinet.

Despite an 18-year career, the physical phenomenon still does not own a European title.

Having no luck in the Champions League will be of specific angst but leading Manchester United to Stockholm on May 24 would at least fill a hole.

This is now a competition which matters more to Jose Mourinho and his No 9, with United having brushed Rostov aside to progress to the last eight on Thursday night.

For them, lifting the Europa League 380 miles away from Ibrahimovic’s home in Malmo means qualification to next season’s Champions League - something the Glazers are counting on given the financial implications without a place among the elite for a second campaign running.

Mourinho has made it very clear that the Europa League is considered a priority amid what continues to be a helter-skelter race for the top four. United are six points behind Liverpool with two games in hand.

So, these nights should become Ibrahimovic’s biggest in a United shirt. For him, with the lure of silverware in Europe, and his manager, whose remit was a passage back to the big time.

A cloud of mystery floats over Ibrahimovic’s future at Old Trafford. Mourinho insisted he will stay next year before the striker revealed the ‘option is already fulfilled on my side’. The decision, he claimed, is down to him.

Whether the thought process behind delaying signing is down to Champions League football has been hotly debated over the last few weeks.

Ibrahimovic maintained it was not and LA Galaxy are keen on offering him a route into the MLS. It does, however, seem inconceivable he would not want another crack at the big one - especially with the sheer volume of minutes he has accumulated during nine months in England.

And one thing he has always been adept at is talking. Ibrahimovic is generous with his time, often stopping to be asked questions, which usually revolve around where he will end up.

Italy’s Fox Sports was no different this week, with ex-England boss Fabio Capello interviewing him.

This time the topic was Napoli. Again, he trotted out a similar answer. “You never know, but I’m happy here,” he said. “Let’s just wait and see what happens.”

He even has his former Juventus manager on a string. For the here and now, though, Mourinho needs to count on the 35-year-old going forward. It was telling that Ibrahimovic did not start three of United’s first four group matches as his game time was managed. That culminated in two defeats - away at Feyenoord and Fenerbahce - in which he came off the bench during both.

He has led from the front in each of the six after, five wins and a draw. Three of United’s seven defeats this season have come when Ibrahimovic has been afforded a breather or suspended which, given that only amounts to 10 games as opposed to the 37 he has started, cannot be ignored.

The Swede cannot play domestically until April owing to the three-match ban he received for an elbow on Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings and so Thursday should see him go hell for leather.

He will sit out the must-win Premier League games with Middlesbrough and West Brom, with Marcus Rashford expected to fill the void after linking up with England over the international break.

Ibrahimovic returns for Everton on April 4, with Sunderland to follow shortly after, but will doubtless have eyes on the following midweek should United beat a team sitting eighth in the Russian Premier League.

The Europa League then resumes at the quarter-final stage, with the prospect of finally securing a European medal doubtless praying on Ibrahimovic’s mind.

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