By Martyn Herman
Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved his hunger for silverware has not diminished with age as the Swede’s double earned a 3-2 win over Southampton in an absorbing League Cup final at Wembley on Sunday.
After a stirring Saints fightback revived memories of their shock 1976 FA Cup final victory over United and with extra time looming, the 35-year-old Ibrahimovic pounced to head Ander Herrera’s cross past goalkeeper Fraser Forster.
His 26th goal of the season in all competitions followed a sublime first-half free kick that gave United the lead and enabled manager Jose Mourinho to claim his first silverware since arriving at Old Trafford in the summer.
Mourinho’s fourth League Cup triumph, three of which came during his two spells with Chelsea, put him alongside former United manager Alex Ferguson and Nottingham Forest great Brian Clough as the most successful managers in the competition.
United had taken a rather fortunate 2-0 lead with Ibrahimovic’s 19th-minute strike and Jesse Lingard’s clinical finish but Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini’s brace either side of halftime breathed life into the showpiece match.
Both sides could have snatched victory but in the end it was the irrepressible Ibrahimovic who stole the limelight — even if United’s unused captain Wayne Rooney hoisted the trophy aloft.
“This is a team effort. This is what I came for — to win and I am winning. The more I win the more satisfied I get,” said Ibrahimovic, who has won silverware at Ajax Amsterdam, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Paris St Germain.
“You appreciate it more the older you get. Wherever I have gone I have won. I think this is trophy number 32 for me.”
After becoming the first manager to win a major trophy in his debut season at United, Mourinho praised Ibrahimovic.
“He won the game for us. He was outstanding,” said the Portuguese. “He made the difference and he gave us the cup.”
Southampton, playing in their first Wembley cup final since 1979 when they were League Cup runners-up, were the sharper team in the opening stages and Gabbiadini was unlucky to have a goal disallowed for offside.
But United shook off their early lethargy and took the lead after 19 minutes with a typical piece of Ibrahimovic wizardry.
When they were awarded a free kick in a central position 25 metres out, the Swede clearly only had one thing in mind as he placed the ball down and curled a shot past Forster.
Southampton responded well but were hit with another sucker punch in the 38th minute when Marcos Rojo found Lingard in space and the young striker guided a precise shot past Forster.
Southampton were fortunate to keep 11 players on the pitch when Jack Stephens caught French forward Anthony Martial with a lunging tackle, escaping with a yellow card.
Claude Puel’s side were rewarded for their first-half endeavour seconds before the interval though when James Ward-Prowse drove the ball across goal and Gabbiadini stole in to steer the ball past De Gea.
Three minutes after the break Southampton were level and it was January signing Gabbiadini who again showed his poaching skills, holding off Chris Smalling to shoot low past De Gea.
With Southampton’s fans in full cry it was the Saints who began to look the more likely winners and former Chelsea player Oriol Romeu saw his header bounce back off the post.
With drizzle falling on the lush Wembley turf the game ebbed and flowed as both sides sensed victory.
Lingard wasted a glorious chance to put United back in front, blazing over from close range, but when Ibrahimovic was presented with an even clearer opportunity he did not miss.
“It was unfair on Southampton, they deserved extra time,” Mourinho said. “They gave us a beautiful final.”