Ibrahimovic downs Southampton as ragged Man Utd win EFL Cup
Swedish striker scores twice as a subdued Jose Mourinho claims his first silverware as manager of Manchester United
An unconvincing Manchester United claimed their first trophy under Jose Mourinho thanks to a late-headed goal from the inspirational Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which finally killed off the challenge of Southampton in the EFL Cup final at Wembley.
It was a disjointed performance from United who should have gone behind when Southampton's Manolo Gabbiadini had a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside, and then threw away a two-goal advantage when Saints's Italian striker dragged them back into the game.
But Ibrahimovic popped up in the dying minutes to score United's third goal and his second of the afternoon to win the game for Mourinho's side.
The manager was unimpressed by the "ragged" display from his side, says Paul Hayward in the Daily Telegraph. "In the moment of victory, he looked as if he had won a bottle of Blue Nun in the office raffle."
He knew Southampton had brought "greater spirit" to the occasion, says Hayward. "He may even have been a touch embarrassed to be leaving London with the trophy. Without 'Zlatan', the cup would be bobbing its way to Southampton."
It was the Swede who made the difference agrees Henry Winter of The Times. Ibrahimovic's "fingerprints were all over this silverware", he says. "He started the scoring with a magnificent free kick and ended Southampton's stirring fightback with a precise header. He was the beacon of hope when United floundered.
"Mourinho is the architect building the new, strong United, restoring the swagger after the David Moyes and Louis van Gaal stasis, but it is Ibrahimovic who has really got the party started."
He was the key difference between the teams, says Barney Ronay of The Guardian. The United performance "clanked and juddered and tripped over its own feet", but the striker remained a class apart.
"Ibrahimovic has bundled this team‑in-progress through everyday obstacles all season, marching on in front like a duke sweeping ahead of his retainers, parting the crowds with a wave of his cane."
His contribution was in stark contrast to that of United's other superstar, Paul Pogba, who was "noisily, clangingly inept, apparently baffled not just by his own role in central midfield but also by the fury and skill of his opponents", says Ronay.
Man Utd vs Southampton: Key battles in the EFL Cup final
Jose Mourinho has the chance to win his first piece of silverware as Manchester United manager on Sunday, when the team head to Wembley to face Southampton in the EFL Cup final.
He has a formidable record in the competition, having lifted the League Cup trophy three times in five full campaigns with Chelsea.
United go into the final as firm favourites, winning five of their past six games and conceding only one goal in the process. They have lost one of their past 25 matches.
Southampton's form has been rather more mixed. Since beating Liverpool in the EFL Cup semi-final, they have been thrashed by Arsenal in the FA Cup and lost to both Swansea and West Ham in the Premier League, before beating Sunderland 4-0 last time out.
Here's what could decide the final on Sunday.
Pogba vs Romeu
"While the Red Devils are growing increasingly reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goals, Paul Pogba is quietly going about his business and turning in man of the match performances most weeks," says the Daily Mirror. "The Frenchman is doing exactly what United paid a world record fee for as he offers a dominating presence in the middle of the park, pulling the strings keeping his side ticking.
"Going toe-to-toe against Paul Pogba in midfield will [be] Oriol Romeu and the former Chelsea man will be key to Saints hopes of landing the trophy. The Spaniard will be key in disrupting the supply to Ibrahimovic up front as he looks to continue his fine form as a defensive shield," adds the paper.
Mata vs Yoshida
United have plenty of options in attack, but the Saints have not conceded a goal in the entire competition. "One of the most intriguing match-ups in their upcoming encounter pits United's goal-scoring midfielder Juan Mata against Saints' clean-sheet king Maya Yoshida," says Sky Sports.
"Mata has scored in each of his two appearances in the EFL Cup this season, while Yoshida has played every minute of Saints' EFL Cup campaign, helping them keep five consecutive clean sheets.
"Southampton's clean sheet record will be tested by Mata... No other midfielder has been involved in more Premier League goals during this time."
The loss of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick, who picked up injuries in the Europa League this week, could weaken United. However, the Saints have injuries of their own, with Charlie Austin and Virgil van Dijk both out, while Sofiane Boufal is doubtful.
Saints boss Claude Puel is "the anti-Mourinho", says Richard Jolly of ESPN, and it could work in his favour. Mourinho is a charismatic winner, Puel appears to be a "charisma vacuum" and "his last honour came in 2000. Mourinho has 23 of varying significance since then."
But another trophy "would not be transformative" for Mourinho or United, adds Jolly. "It would have an altogether greater effect for Puel... He is already Mourinho's antithesis. He has a huge reward if he proves his nemesis."
United obviously have it, but do not underestimate Southampton, says The Guardian. "Beating Manchester United on the back of away wins at Liverpool and Arsenal and home victories over another two other top-flight clubs, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, would be a splendid achievement.
"Manchester City (1970), Nottingham Forest (1978) and others have also had fearsome itineraries but Southampton could make a decent case for trumping everyone if they won this season without conceding a goal in the entire competition."