LONDON: Ever the showman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic seems to be reveling in maintaining the suspense. Why accept a one-year contract extension from Manchester United now when you can sustain the ambiguity and add to the mystique?
“Let’s see what happens,” Ibrahimovic said after his free kick and header helped United win the League Cup on Sunday. “I will stop on top. If I don’t perform, if I don’t bring results, I will not play,” the Swede added. “I
will not be like other players, playing because they (had) a great career and name and they are still playing because they are who they are.”
Even at 35, though, Ibrahimovic is feeding off his goals rather than his reputation.
“I’m an animal,” he said. “I feel like a lion.”
United manager Jose Mourinho certainly wants the striker to stay for another year. After Ibrahimovic produced another age-defying, match-winning display and took his tally for the season to 26 goals, Mourinho said he would not “beg” Ibrahimovic to prolong his stay.
The fans are another matter. If there’s any doubt Ibrahimovic could call it quits after a single season in English soccer, Mourinho quipped that supporters should camp outside his house.
It was Ibrahimovic’s sons, Vincent and Maximilian, who urged their father to make England his next – potentially final – destination in a nomadic playing career after his Paris Saint-Germain contract expired last year.
“I had my mind somewhere else … my mind was not here,” Ibrahimovic said as he left Wembley Stadium following United’s 3-2 victory over Southampton. “Then my kids started to bump my head and Jose called, then I am here.”
‘I AM THE BOSS’
No one but Ibrahimovic, though, is influencing the decision about whether to play on at United into next season. “(My children) are satisfied with what I am doing,” Ibrahimovic said, “but this time I am the boss, not them.”
The Swede is enjoying toying with reporters about his future, especially after defying so many predictions that he wouldn’t be able to cut it in England in the twilight of his career.
“Let’s see what happens,” he said. “We have another two months of the season to go, because according to many I could not do what I’ve been doing.”
Scoring goal after goal, his exploits relegated a forward almost half his age – 19-year-old Marcus Rashford – and captain Wayne Rooney to the bench at Wembley. And he hasn’t just been used sparingly by Mourinho, netting in four different competitions – the Premier League, Europa League, FA Cup and, of course, League Cup – since scoring in the season-opening Community Shield victory over Leicester.
A marksman in front of goal still with such unnerving precision, Ibrahimovic appears as unafraid by the march of time as he is by younger, supposedly more nimble defenders, making 38 appearances with two months of the season still remaining.
“I look good,” Ibrahimovic responded with typical bravado when informed that he looked 25 again. “I know I look good.” Unlike most swaggering players, Ibrahimovic backs up the hype with performances on the field.
“I feel fresh. I feel good. I feel like an animal. I was not worried about age because I know what I am able to do,” Ibrahimovic said. “People who know me from the locker room know that I train very hard … and I need to suffer.”
Ibrahimovic reaps the rewards. Sunday’s triumph under the Wembley arch took his career haul of winners’ medals to 32, augmenting a collection from Ajax, Milan clubs Inter and AC Milan, Barcelona and PSG.
“People always say I’m difficult to handle and that I have a different character,” Ibrahimovic said. “But still I won wherever I went.”
Proving himself in England is particularly satisfying even for a player who never doubts his own abilities. “He didn’t come and show himself here,” Ibrahimovic summed up his doubters as saying. “But I came. And I came when people thought it was impossible for me to do what I am able to do. It feels good. I am enjoying it.”
And he knows just how much United is relying on him for goals. No other player in the squad has even reached double figures with the next-highest scorer, Juan Mata, 17 behind with nine.
“Do I need to do it? In my head I’m never satisfied,” Ibrahimovic said. “I always want more. I’m hungry to do more. That is my mentality.” Had it not been for Ibrahimovic, United might be further back in the Premier League standings than sixth place. If Mourinho’s side doesn’t make the top four – or win the Europa League – it will be out of the Champions League for a second straight season.
Ibrahimovic’s future, though, won’t depend on whether he has a shot at finally landing European soccer’s top prize – the one major honor to elude him in an otherwise illustrious career.
Asked if leaving United to play for another team would be a downhill move, Ibrahimovic responded: “Me or the club?” – AP