Zlatan Ibrahimovic could face a considerable battle for a starting spot when fit again but Jose Mourinho has stressed how important it will be for Manchester United to have the option of a striker he still regards as one of the world’s finest.
Ibrahimovic, who United this week re-signed on a one-year deal, was their main man in attack last term, the veteran Swede notching 28 goals in his debut season with the club before it was prematurely cut short by a knee ligament injury sustained in April.
Since then, United have spent £75million on Romelu Lukaku and the 24-year-old Belgian frontman has scored four goals in three games so far in 2017-18.
Ibrahimovic is not expected to be ready to return to action until after United finish their Champions League group campaign in December, by which time he will be 36.
When asked on Friday if he felt the player would accept not being first-choice, Red Devils boss Mourinho said: “Zlatan knows me, and he knows that I play the players that I think are the best for the team. I always did it.
“So if he comes here and he proves he is the best, he plays. If the other ones don’t give him a chance to prove that, that’s life.”
Also among United’s current forward options is 19-year-old England international Marcus Rashford.
Speaking at his press conference to preview Saturday’s Premier League clash with Leicester, Mourinho said “no, no, no” when asked about Ibrahimovic’s return affecting Rashford’s chances of shining this term, adding that “nobody should be worried”.
He then emphasised United will have a “much better squad” for the return of Ibrahimovic, who he described as “one of the best strikers in the world”.
“Zlatan is going to arrive into a made team,” Mourinho said.
“He is going to arrive mid-season with the team playing a certain way and with players having what I call the functional links in the dynamic of the team, so nobody should be worried with Zlatan.
“I think for you it’s just a funny exercise to try to anticipate what we are going to be when he comes back. But we are going to be a better squad.
“I give you an example – if we play Stoke at the weekend and two days later we play Burton and I want to give a rest to my two strikers, who do I play against Burton? I have to play Rashford or Lukaku.
“So we need a striker – and we have one just around the corner that belongs to our family, that likes to be with us and play for us, we know well, and he is one of the best strikers in the world.
“So the only consequence of it is we are going to have a much better squad.
“I just say that my squad is better for sure. He is one more option, striker, experienced player, that can play double strikers or not.
“We have lots of matches to play. If we progress in the Champions League and one of the two (domestic) cups, we are going to be in the position where we couldn’t do it only with Lukaku and Rashford, especially if I play both together.
“If I play both, I need a striker, so probably in January I would be knocking on (United executive vice-chairman) Ed Woodward’s door asking for a striker for the second part of the season – and I don’t need to. I have one of the best in the world.”
Mourinho is keeping an open mind with regard to exactly when Ibrahimovic might be fit for selection again, although the suggestion on Friday was he does not envisage being able to call upon him until the New Year.
”He will not be ready for the group phase of the Champions League, I don’t think there is any chance of that,” Mourinho said.
”Do we have space in the Champions League list to have him? Yes. So we don’t need to leave any player outside of the list.
”But I’m not thinking (of) Zlatan to play any part in the group phase.”
When then pushed for what he regarded as a realistic estimate of when Ibrahimovic might be available again, Mourinho said: ”I don’t want to think about it. I don’t even ask.
”I don’t speak with him about it or with the medical team. I just think he will be an extra man for us in the second part of the season.
”When I say second part, normally we say January, after Christmas.
”But I have no idea at all and I think the right way is not even to think or speak about it and just let him do his work step by step and come back when he’s ready.”