Roy Curtis: Zlatan, Pogba and Jose bring glamour back to Man United
BLEACH-blonde, cocksure, aglow with stardust, an authentic 21st-century Gallic sun king, Paul Pogba sashayed imperiously before the Old Trafford hall of mirrors.
And, in an instant, in his reflected glow, Manchester United’s world magnificently altered.
Storm clouds diffused; above the Friday night lights, the Salford skies seemed to shimmer and glow and thrill.
It was as if those last three dismal, monochrome years, seasons of unrest and anti-climax and resignation, had been tossed into a bathtub of sulphuric acid.
They dissolved, liquefied, disintegrated, those endless days of unhappy ferment.
If LVG was mentioned at all, it was as a shorthand description of Pogba, United’s new Luminously Vigorous Gladiator.
Old Trafford was home to the world’s most expensive athlete and again felt like the self-assured centre of the football universe. For £89m, United had bought themselves a return ticket to their old Broadway beat.
It wasn’t even the electricity of Pogba’s shift, though the first steps of his second coming to Manchester were worthy of a 21-gun salute.
Rather, it was what he signified, what he promised: Rebirth, a flexing of financial muscles that had atrophied as the world’s greatest talents made Spain their home.
Pogba is not alone as a Glazer raging against mediocrity.
Beside him, Zlatan, burdened by not a single molecule of doubt, went about converting those of us agnostic that a 34-year-old retained membership of the sporting overclass.
Two more goals clinically dispatched; four in three games (49 in his last 39 league games, 396 career club goals) an impressive rebuke to the shrinking band of non-believers.
In the pit, conducting his orchestra, occasionally playing lead violin, Jose Mourinho (inset) bled matinee idol charisma.
And the Theatre of Dreams again felt like the weightiest, most eminent playhouse on Broadway.
United were far from perfect, bright but hardly pristine. Southampton had more shots, Wayne Rooney – bar a fine assist for Ibrahimovic’s first goal – laboured.
If it made it a hat-trick of wins (including Community Shield) for Jose, it should be remembered that Van Gaal won his first three in all competitions last season. What was different was the mood: A feel-good fanfare filled the air.
Ibrahimovic and Mourinho are A-list global behemoths. Pogba is the planet’s most expensive footballer.
Van Gaal’s early days featured Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair, for heaven’s sake.
Manchester United have remembered who they are; after three years, the peacock is again flashing its plumage.
Anthony Martial continues to fizz; just three games in and already Eric Bailly seems a captain in waiting.
In the same eye-blink Luke Shaw has reminded his audience of pre-injury hopes he might climb to the game’s higher reaches.
Mourinho understands an early imperative.
To offer fans a reminder of United’s storied past while at the same time providing a glimpse of a glorious future.
For the first time in 25 years, their tally of league goals dipped below 50 last season; even if their early 2.5 per game will surely dip, an improvement on 48 already looks certain.
The upbeat Stretford End chorus was recognition of initial promise.
All the noise Mourinho had demanded pre-match built to a crescendo as United fans welcomed back that old devil called belief, rejoiced in a swagger they feared had retired with Alex Ferguson.
His name was repeatedly chanted and if even a preliminary judgement before September 10’s Manchester derby can be deemed premature, his post-match interview was revealing.
“I think the fans are happy, not just with the result but because of the way we played.
“We cannot be the United of the 1980s or 90s because the game has evolved. But we brought to the game some aspects of the United culture, the things expected at this club.”
Though he is only in the door, it is a culture which, to Ibrahimovicć – 13 league titles with six clubs in four countries – seems as natural as breathing.
“We need to get used to winning. We have made a good start but we need to get better.”
Pogba’s presence will facilitate any climb toward the ladder’s upper rungs.
Long-striding, powerful, at ease in possession and all this with little more than a week’s conditioning.
It might have been Usain Bolt trotting through a heat; even at half-pace Pogba’s inherent superiority lit up the night.
And gifted Old Trafford crispy notes of the currency it has long craved: A suitcase full of hope.
Before the game, Mourinho had urged restraint, cautioning that Pogba’s skillset was not that of Ronaldo or Messi and he could not set off 50-goal-a-season fireworks.
But still he and Zlatan and Jose delivered a different type of pyrotechnic.
The one that lights up the sky with optimism, the one that reminds Manchester United who they used to be.
And who, perhaps, they might be again.