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Zlatan Ibrahimovic a Man United box office smash who brought stardust, success

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic's move to MLS all but confirmed, Paul Mariner and Alexis Nunes reflect on his legacy at Man United and predict how his stay will unfold Stateside.
Hear how Zlatan Ibrahimovic predicted a move to MLS might happen back in August 2017.

It is perhaps an example of the brutal, unsentimental nature of professional sport that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has left Manchester United through the back door, rather than with great fanfare, having become something of a forgotten man at Old Trafford this season.

This is the guy who was signed by Jose Mourinho -- following his appointment as United manager in the summer of 2016 -- to bring experience, goals, belief and, maybe above all else, charisma back to a team that had been drained of all kinds of personality and confidence by David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

In walked Zlatan, with his supreme self-belief and cast-iron status as a global superstar, and the mood within Old Trafford lifted immediately.

He earned comparisons to Eric Cantona before he had even kicked a ball for the club simply because of the swagger he brought back to the United shirt.

But once the action began, Ibrahimovic lived up to the hype -- even his own -- by proving that the formidable track record he had built across Europe in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France, was based on the solid foundation of class and dedication to his profession.

Even at 34 -- he was just two months short of his 35th birthday when he made his United debut at Bournemouth in August 2016 -- Ibrahimovic dispelled the notion that he was too old to make an impact in England by scoring 28 goals in 46 appearances in his first season, including two in the EFL Cup final win against Southampton at Wembley.

But the cruciate knee ligament injury he sustained during the Europa League tie against Anderlecht at Old Trafford last April ultimately proved to be a terminal blow to his top-level career.

He came back to make seven appearances this season, scoring once, but the old Zlatan had gone and United had simply moved on without him.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 29 goals in 53 matches for Manchester United, winning two trophies.

In came Romelu Lukaku, with the £75 million signing from Everton taking Ibrahimovic's No.9 shirt as well as his place in the team.

Alexis Sanchez was the next star signing to arrive in January, with Mourinho adding another building block to his team, at the same time as pushing Ibrahimovic further out of the picture.

The Swede last kicked a ball for United against Burnley on Dec. 26, being replaced at half-time and never to be seen in a red shirt again.

But while his United career ultimately passed by in the blink of an eye, Ibrahimovic will be remembered as a success at Old Trafford and as a player with a distinct legacy.

He will not go down as an iconic figure like Cantona or as a club legend alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney or Ryan Giggs, but Ibrahimovic provided a crucial bridge between the difficult first stage of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and the dawn of a more confident future under Mourinho.

Ibrahimovic brought the box office back to United by living up to his reputation as a global star.

Radamel Falcao tried, and failed, to do the same at Old Trafford, while Angel Di Maria did even less than the Colombian during his dismal year at the club.

But Ibrahimovic brought stardust and goals and he brought excitement and anticipation back to United games.

Manchester United needed a superstar to lift the place and Zlatan duly obliged.

Yet in doing so, he ended United's need for somebody else's superstar.

Falcao, Di Maria and Ibrahimovic were as much about their off-field impact as their ability to make a difference on the pitch because United, at the time they were signed, needed a star turn to deflect from the struggles being endured by the club following Ferguson's retirement.

Ibrahimovic's success was making United strong enough to appeal to top players in their prime, rather than ageing superstars in need of a new challenge.

The fact that he was able to sneak out of the back door proves that United are now capable of flourishing without him and that, in many ways, is Zlatan's biggest achievement at Old Trafford.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_


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