Zlatan Ibrahimovic rescues Paul Pogba and Man Utd, and not for the first time
Ever since he descended from the footballing heavens this past summer to become the self-proclaimed "God of Manchester," it was generally assumed that United's season would hinge on whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic's 35-year-old body could keep his ego's promises.
After 10 matches, the answer seemed similar to the one Fernando Torres gave to Chelsea as His Zlatan-ness managed to billow the net a whopping total of four times -- or half as many as, say, Diego Costa (remember him?) managed during the same frame. Moreover, Ibra's five-week scoring drought, his worst since 2007, had toothless United languishing eight points off the pace before the season even got serious.
United fans who welcomed Sweden's largest export as the second coming of Eric Cantona were baying for Jose Mourinho to drop him from the lineup. He looked painfully ponderous next to the electric 19-year-old, Marcus Rashford, who was cantering away from defenders while Ibra eyed the lush grass on the retirement pitch in China.
And perhaps most criminally, as far as the United faithful were concerned, Zlatan spurned a glorious chance to put Liverpool in its place at Anfield back in October when he couldn't direct a silver-platter-served header on target.
Of course, Ibra being Ibra, he couldn't give a flying Wallenda about a few bad days of the office because he knew the good ones were predestined. And Mourinho being Mourinho, who had lived through his striker's six-game dry patch at Inter Milan where they won the Scudetto, also knew it was just a matter of time until Ibra stamped his muscular athleticism on Premier League defenses, just as he had done in Sweden, Holland, Italy, Spain and France.
Having scored 13 goals in his past 13 games, it's safe to say that Zlatan, as he put it this week in his typically understated way, has now "conquered England" as well.
Given that conquerors usually lay waste to their enemies, Ibra's choice of words may be slightly hyperbolic. All Ibra and United did to Liverpool in their 1-1 draw Sunday was deprive them of two precious points in their ultimately doomed quest to overtake Chelsea in the title race. Had it not been for the Swede's perfectly executed 84th-minute header, Liverpool would have beaten their bitter rivals at home for only the third time in the past 12 years while derailing a United resurgence that has seen Mourinho's side go unbeaten in their past 16 games, including nine wins.
Frankly, the whole thing makes me grateful to be an Arsenal supporter.
Still, try as he might, even someone of Ibra's boundless sense of self sounded less than convincing when asked about United's own title credentials. "We've already had our dip," he said, referring to the wretched early season stretch of one victory in eight Premier League matches, "and when others have their dip, we will catch them."
By "others," he presumably meant league-leading Chelsea, who are now seven points clear of both Spurs and Liverpool with 17 games remaining after Saturday's impressive 3-0 Costa-less thumping of Leicester. As for United, they drop back to 12 points off the top and the much-hyped "Battle for Manchester Supremacy" between faux pals Mourinho and Pep Guardiola now looks more like a race to see which of their teams gets to finish fifth after Man City was torched 4-0 by Everton earlier on Sunday.
Liverpool may take a Pyrrhic measure of comfort in having severely wounded United's trophy aspirations, but they will be equally disappointed in their failure to kill off the game at 1-0 and ratchet up the pressure on Chelsea. Granted, they were missing four starters -- Sadio Mane, Nathaniel Clyne, Joel Matip and Philippe Coutinho (the Brazilian, returning from a long injury, came on in the 61st minute) -- but the way they let United back into the game in the final 20 minutes suggests that Jurgen Klopp might consider spending more time on aerial defending and less on bro-hugging.
The German was not his relentlessly cheerful self from the start; by the end he was in such a feral mood that you'd be forgiven for thinking Mourinho had inhabited his body. Their touchline dust-up over a wild challenge by Ander Herrera on Roberto Firmino and the subsequent play-acting by the Spaniard made the United manager look downright decorous by comparison.
To his credit, the Portuguese had abandoned the negative tactics of the 0-0 exercise in somnambulism at Anfield and set up his team to attack from the get-go. It was a risky gambit against a team that presses with unremitting intensity all over the pitch, and not surprisingly, United occasionally lost its composure, mostly notably in the 26th minute when the Premier League's most expensive player, Paul Pogba, committed a costly mistake in the penalty area.
What should henceforth be known as the "Hand of Pog" (trademark pending) occurred when he lost his marker, Dejan Lovren, on a Liverpool corner and then, scrambling to recover, jumped up as if to spike a volley ball. James Milner hammered home the ensuing spot kick and the visitors led 1-0.
Had that been Pogba's only howler of the afternoon, you could chalk it up to an aberrant moment of panic from a player who is -- despite his gaudy accomplishments -- still relatively raw. But the 23-year-old wasn't yet done with his Sunday party tricks. There was a back-heel in traffic that launched a Liverpool counter, a UFC "choke out" move on Jordan Henderson and a scuffed shot that traveled closer to the corner flag than the goal.
It was hardly the type of performance that earlier in the week had seen Pogba unveil his own emoji, which flashed around the advertising hoardings at Old Trafford as a tribute to their "future captain". Unfortunately, all of this appears to have confused the young Frenchman, as on Sunday he appeared to be torn between his defensive duties and burnishing his Instagram fame.
It's nice to see that Pogba has become a global force in social media, but United would prefer him to become a dominant presence in midfield, considering that they paid the equivalent of Greece's GDP to bring him to Old Trafford. Based on his slipshod display against Liverpool, he'd be overpriced as a free transfer.
Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic cut a forlorn giant of a figure up front in the first half, seeing little of the ball and lots of Liverpool center-back Ragnar Klavan, who was never more than a man bun away from him. His only Zlatan-esque moment was to force a wonderful save from Simon Mignolet with a screamer of a free kick in which the keeper dove flat out to push the shot around the post.
"In the first half, I have to be patient," Ibra said later, "I just stay calm and stay high to be there when the occasion comes."
With 16 minutes remaining and Liverpool content to protect its 1-0 lead, Mourinho became, shall we say, a bit more pragmatic. He brought on the tall, ungainly Belgian Marouane Fellaini and instructed his players to lump high balls into the box. Or, as Ibra explained the sudden change of tactics: "The more ugly the game became, the more effective we were."
Liverpool seemed unsettled by the aerial bombardment in the area (not to mention the increased hirsuteness), and Ibra's patience was rewarded with a moment of Fellaini-induced chaos. That the play began with a player (Antonio Valencia) who appeared to be in an offside position was the kind of home cooking that Sir Alex Ferguson viewed as his inalienable right during United's glory days. How fitting, then, that the great Scot himself was there to watch it all unfold.
Valencia lofted the ball from the right of the box to the left of it, where Wayne Rooney did well to dig out a cross that a leaping Fellaini spring-haired over Mignolet and off the base of the far post. Valencia was first to the rebound and he floated the ball back in for Ibra, who did brilliantly to twist his body in such a way he was able to guide his looping header into the sliver of space beyond a flailing Mignolet and the underside of the crossbar.
"It took 10 minutes to go in," Ibra said of his 19th goal that crawled across the line and into Old Trafford folklore, "but the important thing is that it did."
And so it came to pass that the Head of God rescued the Hand of Pog and the faithful did rejoice.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.