Ibra's time at Man United won't be forgotten even if it fell short
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will leave Manchester United early after failing to make the comeback that many had said was impossible. Having picked up a potentially career-ending cruciate ligament injury, many feared that his career was over. If he was a few years younger, there was a greater chance of recovery, particularly considering what good shape he had been in throughout his career, but given that he was in his mid-30s, people feared the worst.
What made the injury all the more painful was Manchester United were on their way to the Europa League final at the Friendship Stadium in Sweden. This is the ground that will be home to a statue of Ibrahimovic, in recognition of everything he did for the national team. The final was supposed to belong to him, but instead, he had to sit out on the sidelines.
Still, such is his mentality, it didn't appear to bother him on the night as he paraded around the pitch on his crutches following United's 2-0 win over Ajax. Beaming for every picture and joking with the fans, he had seemingly moved on from the frustration and was already preparing for his comeback.
However, Zlatan delayed on signing a contract extension with the club, which meant he would be without a team (and a salary) come the summer. He had clearly been waiting to see if United were going to qualify for the Champions League before committing himself to another season, wanting to give it one last go in a competition he had never won, but this caution backfired.
Regardless, it wasn't long before Ibrahimovic was posting videos on to his social media account of him walking through water and then kickboxing. People began to think that if anyone could come back from an injury like this, it was Zlatan. Nobody had more faith in him than Jose Mourinho, the manager who had been keen to reunite with his former striker after moving to Manchester, so he signed him in his first summer. So confident was Mourinho, Ibrahimovic was offered a contract while still recovering.
Mourinho had likely dreamed of bringing the Premier League title to the club he had always wanted to manage and saw Ibrahimovic as the man to help him do it. He wasn't ready to give up on that fantasy just yet, and remarkably, just seven months after his injury, Ibrahimovic was back on the Old Trafford pitch. Unsurprisingly, his first attempt on goal was an acrobatic volley, but understandably, he looked fairly rusty.
After the final whistle, he was asked whether he ever had any doubt that he would return. He hadn't, of course.
"Lions do not recover like humans," he said with a smile.
It turns out this cockiness was a bit premature, however, as he hasn't been able to make a full recovery. He went on to play in a further six games following his first appearance of the season, even scoring in the Carabao Cup against Bristol City on Dec. 20, but he looked like a shadow of his former self in every game.
It's likely United's exit from the Champions League last week forced Ibrahimovic's hand. He was clinging on, hoping to return before the end of the season and contribute to possible success in a competition that has proven elusive to him. Once Sevilla won, he surely knew he couldn't hang on for another season.
Reports are pointing to him heading to America, where the league and lifestyle will suit him. His contract at United was terminated on Thursday, and assuming his rehabilitation can be completed, he will be a big star again just as he will crave.
United supporters are realistic and have expected his exit for some time. While this free transfer didn't work out as well as it could have, his contribution in a short time at the club won't be forgotten. From the late equaliser against Liverpool to his EFL Cup-final-winning goals, the Swede has written his name in the history books at United, even if he and the club fell short of winning the silverware they wanted.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.