It was a cup final with absolutely everything. There was controversy, drama, a stirring comeback, a fabulous capacity crowd, and a succession of errors helping to make for wide open, heart-stopping football. But every big match needs a hero and, when the time came, Zlatan Ibrahimovic stepped up once again for Manchester United. And boy, did they need him.
Southampton will curse their rotten luck having been the better side on the day and seeing a stick-on opening goal cancelled out by poor officiating but it was ultimately their inability to deal with Ibrahimovic which settled the EFL Cup final in United’s favour.
United looked vulnerable from the start, with crosses from both wings flashing freely across the face of goal early on. Down the left flank in particular the Red Devils looked weak, with Marcos Rojo isolated and attacked time and again.
There was a let-off from one such situation when Manolo Gabbiadini’s strike was ruled out by an erroneous offside call. But Saints just didn’t respond well enough to the setback and, when Oriol Romeu made a dangerous challenge 25 yards from goal, Zlatan punished him wonderfully by curling the resulting free-kick over the wall.
Jesse Lingard’s third goal in three club games at Wembley should have been enough to secure the trophy before half-time, but Southampton made a point of going back at United’s glaring weaknesses. Another low cross was turned home by Gabbiadini as the Reds stood and watched on the cusp of the interval, then Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling were caught on the back foot as Gabbiadini reacted brilliantly to Steven Davis’ header and the scores were level.
It was the least the Saints had deserved as they continued to make United look atrocious at the back and, during a period which saw Romeu hit the post with a free header, the odds had to favour Claude Puel’s side. United, again, were riding their luck.
But that just set the stage for Zlatan. With little more than three minutes to go, he ghosted in off the back of Ryan Bertrand to head home Ander Herrera’s cross from the edge of the six-yard box. Just as happened when United came here in August for the Community Shield, Ibrahimovic had won it with a header from a right-wing cross.
His 26th goal of the season earned him the right to lift a 32nd major trophy of his phenomenal career. And, for all the talk that he had become a one-man team at Paris Saint-Germain, this was truly a solo bail-out job for an otherwise second-best United.
Given the way they constantly gave up spaces and chances to the underdogs, this will not be a final that will live long in the hearts of United fans but for any other reason than Zlatan’s game-winning contribution.
They would have been lost without him.