Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice, including netting the winner three minutes from time, to help Manchester United beat Southampton 3-2 and win the 2017 EFL Cup final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
Ibrahimovic and Jesse Lingard staked the Red Devils into a 2-0 lead before Manolo Gabbiadini scored either side of half-time to draw the Saints level. That’s how it stayed until the 87th minute when Ibrahimovic powered a header in to win United’s first major trophy under manager Jose Mourinho.
The United boss sprung a surprise by including Lingard in the starting XI. He was joined by Anthony Martial in an attacking lineup, per United’s official Twitter feed:
Southampton were missing top centre-back Virgil van Dijk and leading striker Charlie Austin. Saints manager Claude Puel also left Shane Long on the bench, trusting Nathan Redmond in support of Gabbiadini, per the club’s Twitter account:
Southampton had the ball in the back of the net after 10 minutes when Gabbiadini tapped home from close range. The Italian striker had reacted quickest to a cross from right-back Cedric Soares.
Yet the linesman’s flag erroneously ruled out the goal for offside. Left-back Ryan Bertrand was running in behind Gabbiadini, but the latter had timed his run perfectly off the back of Chris Smalling.
The Saints rued the decision and were doubly punished when United went in front nine minutes later. It was a goal created by holding midfielder Oriol Romeu‘s rash and needless challenge.
His gaffe gave Ibrahimovic the kind of set-piece chance he loves. The big Swede duly took it, although Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster was slow to react to the long-range drive.
As OptaJoe pointed out, 35-year-old Ibrahimovic is definitely the man for a cup final:
Meanwhile, Squawka Football showed how Ibrahimovic has got better with age:
The Saints needed a response, and smart link play from Gabbiadini teed up James Ward-Prowse to sting the palms of United goalkeeper David De Gea with a low drive from distance. Undeterred, Southampton began to pile up the passes and the corners, but the Red Devils always seemed to be able to get the ball clear at the last second.
United also had inspiration in the final third at the key moments. Their second came after a smart combination between Marcos Rojo, Martial and Juan Mata gave Lingard the chance stroke home.
As Samuel Luckhurst of the Manchester Evening News pointed out, Lingard usually saves his best for Wembley:
The 2-0 scoreline was rough luck on the Saints, who had been the better side. Yet United’s savvy at the front and back had ultimately proved the difference.
A team managed by Mourinho usually salts a game away at two up, but Southampton’s endeavour finally got its reward in first-half stoppage time. As they had done all half, the Saints terrorised United on the right flank.
This time it was Ward-Prowse with the pinpoint delivery, one met by Gabbiadini. The latter’s near-post run had foxed United centre-back Eric Bailly.
BBC Sport’s Simon Stone noted how the goal had come from a familiar avenue, while also referencing the one that should have been:
Getting one goal back was the minimum Southampton deserved from their first-half display.
Mourinho swapped out Mata for Michael Carrick at half-time, but it did little to stem Southampton’s pressure in the first few minutes of the second half. The pressure told when Gabbiadini tucked in his second after 48 minutes.
It was a true poacher’s finish as Gabbiadini hit a controlled volley into the ground on the turn amid a melee in the box. Sky Sports Statto noted how the omens were good for the Saints to complete a remarkable comeback:
The omens looked better when superb combination work between Gabbiadini and Steven Davis slid Cedric through. However, the right-back’s cross was toed behind by a desperate Antonio Valencia.
The resulting corner saw Romeu crash a header off the post with De Gea easily beaten.
United needed to pose a threat of their own, so Mourinho brought on Marcus Rashford for Lingard, but only after the latter should have put the Old Trafford club back in front.
Lingard‘s miss aside, United began to establish more control of the ball with Carrick pinging the passes around.
Puel opted to counter United’s change by subbing winger Sofiane Boufal on for Dusan Tadic, whom Carrick had closed down well after the break. He also soon sprang a surprise by swapping out two-goal hero Gabbiadini for Long.
Entering the final five minutes, Boufal slipped a fantastic pass through for Bertrand, who teased a low ball across the face of goal that first Long then Ward-Prowse came agonisingly close to putting in.
The missed connections proved costly when a fortunate bounce set Ibrahimovic away on the break. He rolled in Ander Herrera, who exchanged passes with Martial before lofting a perfect cross back the Swede’s way. The target man made no mistake with a bullet header.
Squawka noted how Ibrahimovic has scored for fun during the last six years:
Southampton were too deflated to rally in the closing moments and were instead left to rue the difference star power can make in big games.
Two-goal match-winner Ibrahimovic said the cup win has validated his decision to join United and work with Mourinho again, per Stone:
The United manager said he’s anxious for Ibrahimovic to sign on for another year at Old Trafford and jokingly urged the club’s fans to do what they can to convince the talisman to stay:
The Portuguese spelled out the Swede’s importance by rightly identifying the striker as the man who won the cup for a team otherwise off the pace:
Mourinho underlined Southampton’s superiority by claiming the Saints did not deserve to be on the losing end:
Meanwhile, Puel bemoaned the decision to rule out what should have been the first goal for offside and called for video technology to help settle similar big calls in the future:
Gabbiadini‘s disallowed goal will naturally re-energise the debate about the need for video replay.
While it was unfortunate for the Saints to be without it, this final will ultimately be remembered as a vivid illustration of how reliant United are on Ibrahimovic and how big a difference marquee players make for the sides lucky enough to have them.
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