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27th Feb 2017

NIALL QUINN: Zlatan has the best ‘winner’s strut’ since Cantona ruled Old Trafford

All the United teams since Fergie would've lost this game... not with Zlatan

Niall Quinn

Last week, it seemed that humour and loyalty were in drastically short supply in the world of football. Cut to Zlatan at Wembley.

Yesterday, in the game’s swankiest parlour, Manchester United and Zlatan Ibrahimovic reminded us that things haven’t changed that much.

Yes, you could say that for the money that United have spent a League Cup is a scant return so far, but the manner in which they took the first silver of the Mourinho era had a little bit of the old United about it.

A lot of people, myself included, had an idea of Zlatan over the years as a talented but slightly cartoonish character who kept cropping up at big clubs around Europe.

He won plenty of medals and scored a lot of goals that were worth looking up on YouTube but we couldn’t really see past the industrial-sized ego. When he went to Paris St Germaine it seemed as if he was easing into retirement; we dismissed his tally of goals each season as being a symptom of how bad the French league was.

I remember seeing him interviewed last year before the season had got into the groove and he was explaining the nature of his travels. I came, I won and I went, he said. At the time I didn’t think that he would grow on me but he has.

I wondered if Mourinho was doing a disservice to youngsters like Rashford and Martial by sticking them onto the shelf for a year or two, while Zlatan was indulged.

The Swede was asked about that in the same interview and he spoke about how he was bringing stability and focus to Manchester United, while he thought he could benefit the young strikers there.

He was right. If you were a young player the first thing you would wonder about is whether at the age of 35 you would still be able to be a dominating striker in the Premier League. Zlatan’s workrate at that age on the pitch is only exceeded by what he does off it. We’ve all seen the pictures of him working out wearing an altitude mask and how he brings his own physio from club to club; a mechanic, basically, who really knows the engine he is working with.

Zlatan is an unusual pro. Not too many have trademarked their first name but he is a model in that regard.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

He also isn’t afraid to miss. He’s almost heroic in his courage in that regard. Nothing dents his confidence. He can have a howler, shrug his shoulders as if asking the gods if they thought they were being funny and then he’ll try something again twenty seconds later. When he scored his hat trick against St Etienne recently he threw in one miss that should be in his career lowlights reel.

I doubt he even remembered it five seconds later.

As a young lad at Arsenal I always watched guys like Mariner, Woodcock, Stapleton and Charlie Nicholas. I learned a lot about belief and hard work. And from Charlie I learned a bit more about champagne too.

Zlatan has something that all strikers need to learn. Keep going. Persist. Psychologically you need to stay on top. The striker has to boss the defender. You can almost see it from the stands when a striker’s confidence dribbles out of his boots. The defender knows he’s won when he senses a crisis in the striker’s brain.

Ibrahimovic’s self belief is gold-plated and just can’t be dented. On Sunday, Southampton played lovely football and looked to have bought really well yet again when Gabbiadini scored his fourth and fifth goals in three games (he had another that should not have been disallowed). They hauled themselves back from a two goal deficit but it wasn’t enough.

In the versions of United we have seen since Alex Ferguson departed, Southampton would have done enough.

However, Ibrahimovic has the best winner’s strut we have seen since Eric Cantona was around.

When Herrera crossed late in the game, Southampton were probably thinking of how they would regroup for extra time. As that ball came across, though, we saw that Ibrahimovic had stolen a yard and we knew that it was all over.

The great strikers love the spotlight. The big Swede brings that quality back to United. They probably won’t win the league this year but some of that confidence has to be contagious. The apprentices will have seen what it takes to be the master.

Ibrahimovic makes no bones about being the boss and comparing himself to big screen heroes like Indiana Jones. In the second half yesterday there was a lovely flicked reverse pass to Rashford and a cute back heel to Pogba. Afterwards, he went out of his way to credit Herrera for the late cross and talk about the efforts of the team.

Several times during the year, especially in interactions with Pogba, we’ve seen glimpses of an Ibrahimovic who is funny and more of a Dead Poets Society teacher than a swashbuckler behind the scenes.

United’s revival as a club has needed this leader on the field.

As Southampton’s confidence grew yesterday you could see the doubt spreading through the younger players.

They’ve had lots of days when they have been playing in United jerseys but not really feeling the magic or the invincibility. The men they looked up to as kids were never beaten in situations like that.

In the glory years, late United goals to win games were just a byproduct of their belief in themselves. For the younger players at United to have shared the dividend of that sort of belief with their iconic striker at Wembley will be a lesson that will stay with them.

He has scored twenty six goals this year and I’m sure he will cruise past the thirty mark soon. Last summer this looked like a risky one year experiment by Mourinho, a sideshow while building work went on.

On the contrary, the man we know now is certainly capable of pulling United higher up the mountain again next year.

Whether he wins another league medal to add to his collection doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. Zlatan has taken United under his wing and strengthened them in a way that will endure long after the last crusade finishes for him. His students’ progress could well be his greatest achievement.

Niall Quinn is a former Arsenal, Manchester City, Sunderland and Republic of Ireland striker. He currently works as a pundit and co-commentator for Sky Sports, and also writes for Sportsvibe.

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Niall Quinn