After seven months on the sidelines following the horrific cruciate knee injury he sustained last April, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was back in action for Manchester United Football Club on Saturday evening as he made his long-awaited return from the bench 14 minutes from time in a comfortable 4-1 victory over Newcastle United at Old Trafford.
Many had feared and speculated that the injury would finish his career. But this is Zlatan we’re talking about. If anybody in world football was going to make it back onto the pitch after a potentially career-threatening injury, it was this Swedish superstar. His determination to ensure last season’s Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht wouldn’t be his last act on the world stage even saw him return in record time given the seriousness of his injury and a projected year-long absence.
On Wednesday evening, trailing in Basel by a single goal with just 16 minutes of the game remaining, José Mourinho made the signal for this legend of the game to make his long-anticipated Champions League comeback. Ibrahimovic was unable to make a significant difference in his brief cameo against the Swiss champions as United crashed to their first Champions League defeat of the season. But, with the Red Devils assured of place in the knock out stages of European football’s premier club competition already and having shouldered the overwhelming burden of goalscoring at Old Trafford last season, notching 28 in total before injury curtailed his campaign, being able to call on a player of Zlatan’s calibre again is something any manager would dream of.
Moving forward, Mourinho will be able to pick and choose Ibrahimovic’s matches safe in the knowledge that he has other options open to him this season to provide goals, with Romelu Lukaku now on the payroll at the Theatre of Dreams, ably supported by Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial et al. However, will Ibrahimovic’s presence back in the first team picture prove a hindrance to Lukaku? Or will the burly Belgian, who already has 12 goals to his name this season, take inspiration from the return of the Swede and push on to establish himself as United’s undoubted number one striker for the rest of the campaign?
On Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football last week, guest and former Manchester City and Liverpool star Craig Bellamy stated his belief that Ibrahimovic’s return and presence could have a negative impact on Lukaku. Here, we examine five reasons why Zlatan’s return should act as an inspiration for Lukaku going forward:
1. Lukaku will be on a mission to retain his place as Mourinho’s number one centre-forward
Having proved his doubters wrong by making his comeback to first team football after just seven months on the sidelines, Ibrahimovic will not be content to take his place on the bench for the rest of the campaign in what could possibly turn out to be his final season of top flight football. His competitive nature will drive him to try and regain his place in Mourinho’s starting XI. However, Lukaku is currently the main man at Old Trafford and having a player of Zlatan’s ability waiting in the wings should act should act as inspiration for him to keep performing and scoring goals. If he doesn’t, Mourinho’s ruthless desire to win trophies could see him dropped somewhere down the line in favour of Sweden’s record goalscorer.
2. The opportunity to play alongside a legend of the game doesn’t come around every day
It’s every child’s dream to play alongside one of the greats of world football. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to tell their grandchildren one day in the future that they played alongside, Messi, Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic? Lukaku should get that opportunity to partner the latter on occasions this season and if he does the former Everton man should embrace the chance to do so while he can. At 36 years of age, this is more than likely to be Ibrahimovic’s final campaign in English football. And with Lukaku having just one solitary Belgian Pro League title and an FA Cup Winners medal to his name to date, if he gets the opportunity to strike up a fearsome partnership with his elder teammate, who has 32 major career trophies to his name, he should grab it with both hands.
3. What better teacher or mentor could he ask for?
When Lukaku joined Chelsea as a teenager in the summer of 2011 he joined a club able to boast forwards of the class and notoriety of Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres (despite his subsequent struggles in a Blue shirt). It should’ve been a recipe for success. Having two of the best forwards in the world to learn from should’ve been just what Lukaku needed at such an early age. However, he was shipped off on loan to West Brom and Everton on loan before joining the Toffees on a permanent contract. Since leaving Stamford Bridge he has been the main man at the Hawthorns and Goodison Park and has not enjoyed the opportunity to play or indeed train alongside some of the best forwards in the history of the game. Now finally he has that opportunity. If Ibrahimovic can lend his support and vast experience to Lukaku both on the training pitch at Carrington and on the field of play when the opportunity arises it can only be beneficial for the Belgian throughout the rest of his career. Having represented some of the biggest clubs in world football including Ajax, Juventus, both Milanese clubs, Barcelona and Paris St Germain in addition to gracing numerous World Cups and European Championships, Ibrahimovic has a wealth of experience to share. Lukaku should be looking to soak up every piece of advice Zlatan offers. He would be a fool not to.
4. An opportunity to prove his doubters wrong
Arriving at Old Trafford for such a vast fee, there were always going to be those who doubted Mourinho’s judgement in signing Lukaku. The Belgian has repeatedly faced criticism for his inability to affect big games. This season at United he will have nowhere to hide if he doesn’t show up for the biggest matches. With Zlatan waiting in the wings, Lukaku will be acutely aware that he will need to up his game against the biggest clubs both domestically and in Europe. Ibrahimovic has experience of facing the best teams for well over a decade. That experience can stand Lukaku in good stead if he taps into his vastly experienced teammate’s knowledge reserves.
5. Zlatan’s return can take some of the enormous pressure off Lukaku’s shoulders
Burdened with a record price tag for any United player in history, Lukaku started his career at Old Trafford without a semblance of any pressure on his shoulders. 11 goals in his first 10 games suggested United had found the man to replace Ibrahimovic long term. Having scored 85 goals in five seasons prior to his arrival in England, the goals have dried up somewhat of late for Belgium’s record goalscorer. The return of Ibrahimovic may be construed as being a threat to Lukaku’s position as top dog by some. But it is a short-sighted view. In Paris, Ibrahimovic formed a deadly partnership with Uruguayan star Edinson Cavani, sharing over 200 goals between them in three seasons at the Parc des Princes. If Ibrahimovic can chip in with a few important goals this season when Lukaku is struggling and vice versa, the big Swedish striker’s return should be viewed as a positive and not a threat. It will be down to Mourinho whether they grace the pitch alongside one another or not. He will need to change his tactics to accommodate both. However, it is a lovely conundrum to be faced with.
Manchester United are currently second favourites behind rivals City to win the Premier League at odds of 14/1 with Sunbets. They are joint sixth favourites to win the Champions League at 16/1 with the same bookmaker. If Lukaku and Ibrahimovic can contribute heavily to the club winning either trophy the doubters including Bellamy will have to eat humble pie. You can get all the bets Premier League and Champions League odds by clicking on the following link: