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Roy Curtis: Zlatan's the nail in the coffin of United's title hopes

SoccerBy Roy Curtis
Zlatan arrives at Old Trafford almost five years older than Cantona when he departed
Zlatan arrives at Old Trafford almost five years older than Cantona when he departed

IN his poems to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Jose Mourinho might be a lovesick Pokémon Go gamer reciting an ode to Pikachu.

Ibrahimovic siphons to the surface the ordinarily concealed vial of romantic blood that apparently inhabits the murky depths of the reptilian, Portuguese arch-pragmatist.

The Swede’s body is “amazing”, his tally of goals “extraordinary”, his age is “not really 34”.

The fear for Manchester United here is that a thick smog of infatuation is clouding Mourinho’s judgement; that, like a besotted teenager, his thinking is devoid of clarity.

That the poison arrows of sentiment have pierced the pitiless Siberian temperament which has facilitated Jose in his serial hoarding of football’s biggest prizes.

That like a Pokémon obsessive he is in danger of walking himself and United under a truck. 

The suspicion here is that the Stretford End’s craving for a return to the mountain top that was for so many years their familiar habitat can be written off in just two words.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Handing the antique Swede the Number Nine shirt that fit so snugly around Anthony Martial’s shoulders last year might be recalled as the great folly of Mourinho’s career.

Worse, relegating Marcus Rashford, whose flurry of teenage kicks stirred a comatose Old Trafford last spring, to the bench to indulge Zlatan, amounts to criminal neglect.

Rashford, a brilliantly intuitive gunslinger, reawakened not only the Theatre of Dreams, but the club’s tradition of placing unbreakable trust in youthful possibility.

His reward is a momentum-sapping shunting to the margins as Mourinho goes with a soon-to-be 35 year old who failed to score and managed one shot on target at Euro 2016.

Ibrahimovic – the Andriy Shevchenko of Mourinho’s second decade in English football – may shift shirts in Asia, but he will be the nail in the coffin of United’s title aspirations.

Doubtless, his Player of the Year awards stockpile – ten from spells in France, Italy, and Holland – speak of a one-time authentic behemoth of danger.

And the highlight reel of a 392-goal, 13-title career might have been plucked from the archives of wonder.

When Ibra hits the high notes, as with that outrageous propeller-kick against England four years ago, he carries his chosen sport to the final frontier of genius.

True too, he will be stimulated by the notion of defacing the reputation of the manager newly installed across the city.

Ibrahimovic called Pep Guardiola a “spineless coward” as the then Barca boss quickly tired of his maverick nature.

One glorious soundbite from Zlatan’s strident, scattergun autobiography might have been purchased from Don King.

“If Mourinho brightens up the room, Guardiola pulls down the curtain. Mourinho would become a guy I was basically willing to die for.”

The affection is requited, the rapture from their time together at Internazionale undimmed by the passing of time.

“He wins year after year,” swoons Mourinho, “his goal record is amazing. Let’s be honest, he is very rich so you only come to the most difficult championship in the world if you feel it.

“For me, the real age is not the age on your ID. The real age, the real ID is your body, your brain, your attitude. And this guy is young. His body is amazing.”

What Mourinho neglects to mention is that their shared Annus mirabilis in Milan was all of seven years ago. 

And Ibra’s peacock preening retort when Eric Cantona laid the welcome mat – “I won’t be king of Manchester, I will be God of Manchester” – ignores a simple truth.

Zlatan arrives at Old Trafford almost five years older than Cantona when he departed.

His achievement of scoring so abundantly (51 times in all) for PSG last season is a hugely potent statistic, until diluted by the reality that it was for the utterly dominant force in a league as lop sided as its Scottish cousin.

The chill winds whipped up by the ticking clock can quickly blow a career off course.

Shevchenko – as highly rated then, as Ibrahimovic is now – won the Ballon d’Or 18 months before Abramovich force fed him to a reluctant Mourinho a decade ago.

The Ukrainian’s feet spent almost their entire time in London in cement, and immediately toxified the relationship between Chelsea’s manager and owner beyond repair.

Three seasons ago Steven Gerrard was runner-up in the Premier League’s Player of the Year ballot; the following season he was a tattered, time-expired liability.

It happens that quickly.

Maybe there will be little dips into Zlatan’s back catalogue, cameos of imagination and superior technique.

In those moments – with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Wayne Rooney and Martial deployed behind him in a 4-2-3-1 formation – he may indeed be confused for a wind behind Mourinho’s red sail.

Those moments will be an illusion.

And as Rashford – the diamond who announced himself as United’s sparkling future last season – sits idly by, Old Trafford will become a vehicle for an ageing showman’s ego.

Mourinho is the right man at the right time in the right place as a new era of Manchester Star Wars premieres.

His error as the empire looks to strike back against a petro-dollar, Pep-driven City is to reach for a spent Swedish light sabre as his weapon of choice.