Manchester United – Southampton 3-2 (Ibrahimovic ’19 ’87, Lingard ’38 – Gabbiadini ’45 ’48), EFL Cup Final, 2017-02-26, Wembley Stadium, London
I have to admit, I did feel sorry about Southampton having a disallowed goal for about half of the game. I stopped feeling sorry for them after Oriol Romeu got away with elbowing Herrera in the face (would have been his second yellow card). Instead, he struck the post 2 minutes later. So yeah, horrible decision by the ref and valid goal for Saints after 10 minutes of playing, but the referee mistake have this habit of evening themselves out in the end. And as far as key referee mistakes go, this was not one of them (here’s looking at Maradona’s hand of God in 1986 or Geoff Hurst’s goal that never was in 1966).
Having said that, they did batter us and it is the first game this year when United are outplayed. Pressing high, defending tight (with a couple of obvious exceptions), crowding the midfield so that they suffocate the creativity of our superstar players and having some very incisive attacks, these were the tools with which Southampton tried to spoil our party. In our corner, I find it telling for how far United have come under Jose Mourinho that even when tired, battered, outplayed and pulled back from two goals up, the team still maintained a positive outlook and an attacking focus. None of the fear and slowing down the play from Moyes’ nightmare year, none of van Gaal’s over-cautiousness, this was a team playing to score regardless of the score on the board. Tight defending, and in truth I don’t really find fault to our defenders on either of the two (three) goals, all of them being creations of the natural poacher that is Gabbiadini rather than defensive mistakes. But even when the defense works, Valencia and Rojo were always up on the flanks supporting the attack. And despite Southampton playing the game of their lives, there were moments when Pogba, Ibra, Lingard and Martial were tearing through their central defense.
And Zlatan… it is absolutely impossible to over-praise the man in regards to today’s game. He is the absolute winner of today’s final, unforgiving from both set pieces and open play. And as far as I remember, it is the first time since he came to United when his defensive contribution is also remarkable, with a ball headed out from imminent danger and originating the counter-attack which led to the winning goal. No wonder he was tired at the end of the game, but with 26 goals this season, can anyone doubt the impact the man is having at United? And with the swagger and the confidence the man displays in interviews, we can safely proclaim him as the second coming. Of Cantona the redeemer? Well…
Lingard thrives at Wembley, it was good to see him score his third goal in three games here, and having an altogether great game as opposed to his rather mediocre recent run of form.
It is harsh to lose a game that you’ve dominated for the most part with 3 minutes to go, and Mourinho recognized as much. But then, why did they leave Zlatan with so much space in the box? As for the disallowed goal, well… too much has happened over the course of the game to say that had too much of an impact of the end result. The way I see it, even if Southampton was arguably the better side, United had the psychological control over the course of the game, the experience of knowing when to push and when to sit back, when to force a goal and when to run the clock down.
I was glad to see Rooney lifting the trophy despite him not having any involvement in the game. The thing is… like many United fans, I have felt betrayed by Rooney in 2011 when he wanted to leave for Chelsea, and again in 2014 when he wanted to go to City. But Rooney’s United story started in 2004, and apart from the two moments who will forever be stains on his biography, Wayne’s achievements for Manchester United are undeniable. Nowadays, when Rooney only has only a peripheral role at United and he seemed to have accepted that, it is beneficial for everyone to show respect and deference to our all-time top scorer. No matter what happens from now on, Rooney is a legend of the game and I would like to see him lifting a few more trophies for us before his time is up.
So here we are then… winners of the first cup of season and if we add a very likely top 4 finish, we can already say this season is a success. Add in the two other cups we’re still fighting for, and we’ll already be looked up to by pretty much everyone else. The smell of silver always tickles our senses, but there’s something even more important that we’ve felt today: the sense that winning silverware is once again a common occurrence for United.