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Zlatan ready to defy his critics again as United No. 10 faces Lukaku battle

In an ESPN FC world exclusive, Zlatan Ibrahimovic talks Romelu Lukaku, his Manchester United return and more.
In an ESPN FC world exclusive, Zlatan Ibrahimovic talks Romelu Lukaku, his Manchester United return and more.
In an ESPN FC world exclusive, Zlatan Ibrahimovic talks Romelu Lukaku, his Manchester United return and more.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has his own way of doing things.

And when, in the tunnel at Old Trafford on New Year's Eve, he wanted to get the message across that he believed he had proved his critics wrong, he chose his words carefully.

"Like always," he said before a thoughtful pause, "I make them eat their balls."

It was interpreted as a dig at former Manchester United striker Michael Owen, who had questioned the Swedish striker's work rate, accusing him of "standing a lot."

"I came to the Premier League, and everyone thought it would not be possible," Ibrahimovic went on.

"It gives me a lot of energy, trust me. A lot of energy because they get paid to talk s--- and I get paid to play with my feet. That's how I enjoy it."

In February, after scoring twice to help United in the League Cup against Southampton at Wembley, he was at it again.

"This is what I predicted," he said, taking a brief break from talking about the differences between lions and humans.

"Everything I thought would happen, has. I think the other ones didn't see it. When I came here to show them what I saw, apparently, to many, I could not do it.

"I keep doing what I am doing every year. I'm enjoying the game. The only thing is, I am enjoying it in England."

But despite scoring 28 goals in 46 games last season, Ibrahimovic, who has signed a new one-year contract at Old Trafford, will sense the doubters are back.

The questions are not whether he can do it in the Premier League -- those have been answered. This time, the debate is about how much he will play.

New £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku, wearing Ibrahimovic's old No. 9 shirt, has started the season with four goals in three competitive games. Jose Mourinho will inevitably be asked sooner rather than later whether Lukaku and Ibrahimovic can play together, and he will answer that they can.

But in reality, once Ibrahimovic is fully fit, there will be very few occasions when United's No. 9 and No. 10 are picked in an old-fashioned strike partnership.

It is not Mourinho's style -- and the United manager has already shown, with the way he handled Wayne Rooney last season, that he is not willing to shoehorn a player in just because of his name.

It is almost impossible to imagine both Lukaku and Ibrahimovic starting the biggest Premier League games -- at Anfield, Stamford Bridge or the Etihad -- or a hypothetical Champions League quarterfinal with Bayern Munich, for example.

But what is also difficult to comprehend is Ibrahimovic being happy to watch those games from the bench. You'd imagine a lion, real or otherwise, would get restless very quickly caged in a Perspex dugout.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has rejoined Manchester United for one year.

Ibrahimovic is not used to playing back-up. Between leaving Barcelona for AC Milan in 2010 and joining United from Paris Saint-Germain in 2016, he came on as a substitute a total of six times in league, Champions League or international games. Six times in nearly 250 appearances across six years.

He came off the bench five times for United last season, scoring once -- the winner in a 2-1 victory at Blackburn in the FA Cup.

When Mourinho brought a 36-year-old Didier Drogba back to Chelsea in 2014, he insisted the Ivorian would not be "protected by history," and he will say something similar when asked about Ibrahimovic's prospects of first-team football at United.

Ibrahimovic, 36 in October, has already spoken about "finishing what he started." But it is unlikely that includes watching from the sidelines.

It was doing precisely that during the Europa League final in Stockholm in May that convinced him to snub the LA Galaxy's advances for another crack at England.

It is not a bad thing for Mourinho. Ibrahimovic's arrival gives him more options up front -- especially helpful given the problems United had scoring goals in the Premier League last season.

More than that, it puts pressure on Lukaku. He will know that if his form dips, Ibrahimovic will be waiting.

There is, though, also a chance for the Belgian to improve. Marcus Rashford said more than once last season that he had learned a lot by studying how his teammate trains and prepares for games.

It should be no surprise that a player who talks about himself as if he is not human has plenty of confidence in his own ability. That will, undoubtedly, extend to beating the most expensive striker in United's history -- more than 10 years his junior -- for a place on Mourinho's team.

Ibrahimovic will tell you it is not the first time he has proved the doubters wrong.

Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.

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