Among the reasons Zlatan Ibrahimovic listed for idolising Muhammad Ali, one in particular stood out. “The way he was, the way he performed, the way he was talking, the way he was moving,” the Swedish striker began, speaking with an infatuation generally reserved for him, not by him.
It was his final point that was most pertinent. “The way he responded to the critics, to whoever talked,” he added. The 35-year-old was speaking on Thursday; by Saturday, the numbers doubting whether he could make an impact in the Premier League reached single digits as he ensured that this would be his 11th successive season with at least ten league goals.
Against West Brom, Ibrahimovic was at his very best. He scored twice, linked the play wonderfully, led the line as only he can, and even provided an element of sh*thousery. The week began with him scoring the winner against Crystal Palace after allegedly elbowing Yohan Cabaye. It ends with his decisive double at The Hawthorns being forgotten (by some) as a questionable challenge on Craig Dawson receives the back-page headlines.
Manchester United fans will care not. Ibrahimovic brings a necessary edge to this United side, who were bullied all too often by more physically imposing sides in recent seasons. The Swede has committed more fouls than any other player in the Premier League this season (38). Paul Pogba, rather wonderfully, is only one foul behind in second.
But strikers must score goals, and the 35-year-old has provided the perfect response to a run of just one strike in 11 games from September to November. He has now scored 16 goals in all competitions for United before Christmas. Last season’s top scorer was Anthony Martial, with 17 goals. The season before that it was Wayne Rooney, who scored 14 times in the 2014/15 campaign. The Englishman’s haul of 19 goals in 2013/14 is already under serious threat.
It is no wonder Jose Mourinho is considering resting his on-pitch leader. Ibrahimovic has played more minutes in all competitions than any other United player (2,102). He has missed just two of the club’s 27 games. The West Brom win saw him play his third game in the space of six days, and his eighth game in 24 days. He has completed the full 90 minutes in each.
And yet it is no wonder Mourinho regards the forward as “almost impossible” to rest. He has scored ten goals in his last nine games, no other United player has scored more than five goals, and the example he sets to his teammates is clear. Few others are capable of making Phil Jones giggle like a child.
Just as Ali did all those years ago, Ibrahimovic commands respect from those he works with and derives fear from his opponents. Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson were made to look their 37 and 33 years of age respectively on Saturday; the Swede, at 35, looks like a striker in his prime. And those critics have been silenced.