LONDON — Pure and simple, Manchester United got out of jail to win the League Cup on Sunday at Wembley.
Southampton deserved to win. United did not.
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But they did, as Jose Mourinho found a way to win his first major trophy as a Red Devil and begin what could be another golden era in their history. With the trophy win they’ve know equaled Liverpool’s 41 major titles and the team Mourinho is building suggests there could be many more, maybe even this season, as they’re still alive in the FA Cup and UEFA Europa League.
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United beat Southampton 3-2 thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s late header, as they threw away an undeserved 2-0 lead as Saints fought back to make it 2-2 thanks to goals from Manolo Gabbiadini and then they hit the post through Oriol Romeu right on the hour mark as United were hanging on for dear life. Saints also had a perfectly good goal chalked off in the first half for offside with the score locked at 0-0.
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However it went in United’s favor and they got it done. There’s an invincibility returning with just one defeat in their last 27 games in all competitions. This win was far from convincing but they found a way.
Mourinho knew his team had got away with one, praising Claude Puel‘s Southampton who deserved more, but his incredible knack of winning trophies continues.
“Honestly, Ibrahimovic won the game for us because he was outstanding. I can see a couple of performances – Pogba similar level – but he was outstanding,” Mourinho told Sky Sports. “In a match where the opponent was better than us for long periods – they deserved to go to extra time – he made the difference and he gave us the cup.
“I’m a bit emotional yes. It’s not easy to win titles and so many times. It’s not easy to cope with the pressure I put myself under. It was a game I was feeling the difficulty. I want to pay homage to Southampton and what they deserve. We have the cup in our hands and probably should be in extra time. Winning is always special. The day I don’t get emotional when I win is the day to go home.”
Throughout the final Mourinho’s side were undone out wide with full backs Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo given a torrid time by Southampton’s wingers and especially full backs Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand. So many time crosses were whipped in or pulled back and a Southampton player couldn’t get on the end of it.
Mourinho’s United resembled a fighter on the ropes in the second half, clinging on for a points decision with the occasional flurry of hope. Apart from Jesse Lingard‘s volley at the back post and a low shot from Marcus Rashford, there was nothing for United in the second half. They looked like a team who had played four games in 11 days, while Saints had two weeks off.
Then Zlatan arrived.
“This is a team effort. This is what I came for – to win and I am winning. The more I win the more satisfied I get,” Ibrahimovic said. “You appreciate it more the older you get. Wherever I have gone I have won. I think this is trophy number 32 for me. This is what I predicted. To many I could not do it. My friend, I keep doing it. I’m enjoying it in England.”
Zlatan’s character, along with Mourinho’s guidance, explains why United could now go on and win the FA Cup and Europa League and also finish in the top four in the Premier League. Zlatan is a winner. It may not be pretty and sometimes, like Sunday, it may not be deserved, but class and experience counts for so much.
Mourinho’s trophy haul is why he is still the most coveted manager in the world, despite the debacle at Chelsea last season and his much-maligned sideline antics. On Sunday he become just the third manager (after Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough) to win four League Cups. At Chelsea he won the trophy three times in the past, gaining momentum from all three of those successes as he built a ruthless winning machine. Mourinho will be given the money to buy the best players on the planet this summer and things will improve as his overhaul at United continues.
It’s not a well-oiled machine yet but it’s getting there. Winning trophies like this will help United get back to the top quicker. Mourinho said he side “had a bit of luck because the 3-2 came for us at a moment when it was difficult for them to react.”
He also reflected on how important this trophy win was for his team.
“I am very happy, as I was saying before it is important for the club, fans, players, I always try to put myself in a secondary position,” Mourinho said. “It is also important for me. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted very much to win a major trophy with every club. By doing that with Manchester United it is quite a sense of relief. It was a big target for me to win a trophy at Manchester United. The reality is that we want more and more. My contract is long. I have two more years plus this one. Hopefully I can win something. This season, I know it is difficult, but the reality is that we have to try to fight for more.”
This may just be the start of another special era for Mourinho and Manchester United.