Saturday, 20 August 2016

Zlatan At The Double

Manchester United 2 Southampton 0

Not even the fanfare surrounding the return of the world's most expensive player was going to steal the limelight from a character as big as Zlatan Ibrahimovic as his two goals ensured that Jose Mourinho's Old Trafford reign got off to a flyer.

There was an air of optimism surrounding the Theatre of Dreams as fans flocked to Old Trafford to witness Mourinho's first official match at his new home.

After kicking the Premier League season off with a fine win on the south coast against Bournemouth all eyes were focused on this clash against Southampton and whether United's world record signing Paul Pogba would make his second career debut for the Red Devils.

Here was Mourinho's first starting XI for the opening home game: De Gea, Valencia, Blind, Bailly, Shaw, Pogba, Fellaini, Mata, Rooney, Martial and Ibrahimovic.

Herrera was the player to make way for the return of Pogba in midfield. Home debuts were handed to Ibrahimovic and Bailly but there was still no place for Armenian Mkhitaryan who would have to continue to bide his time as a substitute.

Smalling returned to the squad, but would have to start on the bench after the splendid display of Blind and Bailly at the back last time out.

United got the game underway in front of a vibrant crowd that was determined to make the night one to remember.

It was the visitors who had the audacity to create the first real chance of the half as they were awarded a free-kick on the edge of United's area which the wall dealt with well.

Ibrahimovic started the first United attack of note by winning the ball and cleverly feeding Rooney, who in turn rolled the ball into the path of the advancing Valencia who has been impressive at the start of the season. The Colombian raced to the byline, but his cross was blocked for a corner. This early action got the home faithful worked up as they increased the volume.

In the opening ten minutes after an initial poor first touch Pogba seemed to settle into his position fairly well and linked with his new teammates if not a little nervously as was to be expected with all the hype surrounding him in the build up to the match.

The Saints game plan came unstuck when Romeu had to leave the play early and was replaced by Clasie.

Pogba's first real contribution almost had the fans cheering for a goal as he struck a well-aimed shot from the edge of the area that was saved by opposition keeper Forster. Now that would have been a tremendous start to the French internationals United return. The move was instigated by Ibrahimovic as he did well to bring the ball down well inside the area.

At the other end, Southampton had their own chance to take the lead as a cross by Redmond only failed to be met by the head of Tadic by inches as he ran in unmarked at the far post. A definite let off for the Reds. The Saints were clearly not there to make up the numbers and looked a decent side.

Anthony Martial started the match a shadow of himself from last season as his first touch let him down on a few occasions. Hopefully, whatever is on his mind clears up very soon as the team needs his focus, pace and dribbling skills firing on all cylinders as soon as possible.

As the half hour mark approached the fans saw a delightful passing move from United as the ball found Pogba on the left hand side of the penalty area and his nice chip was met by Mata, who deftly headed the ball towards Ibrahimovic who in turn attempted one of his trademark overhead kicks. However, he was off target on this occasion.

The big Swede was on fire with all the attacking moves stemming from his runs and his link up play with the supporting players.

Captain Rooney, who is only three goals behind Bobby Charlton's record, tried his luck from distance but his effort lacked the power needed.

United's first Premier League home goal of the new season came from who else but the irrepressible Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who powered in a header from a brilliant cross by Rooney in the 36th minute. What a way to score his first Premier League goal at Old Trafford and what an assist from his captain whose determination to reach the ball and deliver the cross was a delight to see.

Half-time and United deserved to be ahead and had just about done enough to go off in the lead. However, they would have to be careful of Southampton in the second half and will be looking to kill the game off quickly.

As the half progressed Pogba became a lot more involved in the majority of the play and almost got his head to the cross that Ibrahimovic headed in to put his side into the lead.

One interesting difference to last season is the height in the team now, whereas it was only Fellaini who offered the aerial threat in the opposition's box now you have both Ibrahimovic and Pogba to aim for and their technique is a lot more pleasing to the eye and at the same time more effective.

At the start of the second half, Mourinho decided against making any changes but it was Southampton who started the most promising of the two sides and even had the ball in the net which was ruled out for offside.

Within minutes of the restart and it must be said slightly against the run of play United were awarded a penalty for a trip in the box on Shaw. Up stepped the man of the moment Ibrahimovic to stroke the ball home and score his and United's second of the night.

Interestingly, it seems that Rooney has been relieved of spot kick and free kick duties, but then again, it's not wise to argue with Ibrahimovic.

Southampton still didn't give up and wasted a number of chances to pull a goal back and did everything apart from test De Gea in the United goal.

United began to move up through the gears and produced more openings which started when Martial sprinted away from his marker and raced into the penalty area only to unleash his shot straight at the keeper. This was followed by a neat cut back from the byline by Shaw that was blocked inside the six-yard area. Good all-round attacking play by the Red Devils and at a pace which had been missing last year.

With twenty minutes left on the clock, United looked comfortable and allowed Southampton to have more of the ball and defended well as a unit to thwart any attempt on goal.

In the 75th minute, Mourinho brought Mata off to a warm reception and gave another new summer signing Mkhitaryan his home debut in the league.

Pogba seemed to be enjoying himself on the pitch and almost netted as he had a run and shot which whistled wide.

De Gea has been voted the player of the year in recent seasons, but if the team continues to play like they are he will have less to do and not get the votes at the end of this campaign. Which is a good thing, right?

The second substitution for United came in the 81st minute when fans' favourite Herrera replaced the largely ineffective Martial to huge cheers as the crowd had been chanting his name and got their wish.

The home side played out the last five minutes of the game by confidently stroking the ball around as the home fans went through their repertoire of chants saluting their heroes and manager.

There was still time for one last change as captain Rooney made way for the returning Smalling with only two minutes left in the game.

Pogba was determined to score on his return and almost succeeded with a smart shot that was only just wide. His focus was on scoring and not on Ibrahimovic lurking inside the area hoping for a pass that would give him the chance of a hat-trick.

Game over and another win which keeps United at the top of the league and proves that Mourinho has given the team the belief in their own ability and more importantly given the fans something to cheer after some difficult times.

The United team as a whole put in another all round display of unity against a Southampton side that enjoyed a lot of possession and but for poor finishing could have and should have given De Gea more to do between the sticks. His back four, although a little shaky at times, performed well enough with both Shaw and Valencia once again providing width in attack.

Pogba and Fellaini put in a sterling job in the middle of the park and the French star looked in fine fettle and didn't seem to be tired at the end of the game which answered any questions about his fitness or lack of.

Mata and Rooney ran their socks off all night and were at the heart of most of the attacking forays. Both players fully deserved the applause they received when substituted. Martial looked to be off his game with some poor touches, but he's a young lad and his form is sure to return.

However, there could only be one candidate for the Man of the Match award and that had to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has now scored three goals in his first two league games and looks like he can score at any given moment. What he brings to the forward line is a quality that will not only guarantee goals, but with it a style that has the fans on their feet every time he has the ball akin to a certain French gentleman some twenty years ago.

The season has started well and Mourinho must be a pleased manager with the way in which his side has kicked started the new campaign. The players are still getting used to each other along with the new tactics employed by the boss. While the learning process continues if they can obtain wins like this then that only bodes well for the rest of the season.

There is one noticeable difference already this season and that is the player's demeanour. It seems as if a huge weight has been lifted from around their necks and they are playing the game in a way in which they can express themselves without fear of repercussions. They are actually enjoying themselves and the fans are too.

Thanks for reading.

Miles Dunton.