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Analysing Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s domineering performance in Manchester United’s win against Sunderland



José Mourinho has endured some frustration at the start of his Manchester United career, particularly so given the unwanted tendency his side has developed of throwing away leads and failing to see out matches. But a key part of Manchester United’s return to form since has been the development of an understanding between record signing Paul Pogba and their talismanic striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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The Swede has been involved in 14 Premier League goals since his arrival on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain, with 12 goals and two assists, more than any other Manchester United player, and he was at his potent best again on Boxing Day, combining well with Pogba and the rest of his teammates as the Red Devils picked apart David Moyes’ Sunderland side at Old Trafford, the Scot’s first return to the Theatre of Dreams since he was dismissed from the United hot-seat back in April 2014.

Both halves were dominated by United as the statistics reflected, with the Red Devils making 606 passes compared to Sunderland’s 177, yet in the first-half, Sunderland did well to keep United’s star studded side in check, and it took Ibrahimovic’s first real contribution in the game to break the Black Cats’ resistance, after their back four of Billy Jones, Lamine Koné, Papy Djilobodji and Patrick Van Aanholt were well regimented at the back in front of the excellent Jordan Pickford in goal.

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It was a moment of world-class vision and craft from the Swede however, who came inside Lamine Koné after being fed by Marcos Rojo and slipped a wonderful pass into Daley Blind, who shot low and across Pickford to net his first of the season and edge United ahead.

After making the breakthrough they had desperately needed, Sunderland’s grip on their hosts began to lessen, and Ibrahimovic almost provided another killer blow in first-half injury time. He received the ball with his back to goal, before swivelling and threading a fantastic ball in-between Jason Denayer and Papy Djilobodji which found Paul Pogba, but the Frenchman attempted to tee himself up for a volley on the turn and only sent a weak effort straight into the grateful hands of Pickford.

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By now Ibrahimovic was in the mood to make an impact, and he and United came out for the second-half with all the attacking impetus, and he almost crafted another goal when he played a delightful one-two with Pogba, knocking the ball first-time back into the Frenchman who had found a pocket of space on the edge of the Sunderland box between Denayer and Sebastian Larsson, but his effort was ultimately tame and too easy for Pickford.

Despite not testing the keeper, the Swede was proving a vital link-up man in the final third, creating space and finding teammates with incisive passes as United began to probe more fiercely around the Sunderland box, but he had his first chance to notch a strike of his own when his well-timed run in behind Djilobodji as picked out by Juan Mata’s excellent through ball, only for Ibrahimovic to flash his effort over the crossbar on 52 minutes.

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The introduction of Henrikh Mkhitaryan just beyond the hour added further punch to United’s attack, and chances were beginning to come by at a premium, and Ibrahimovic was at the heart of Sunderland’s defensive torment once more, when another incisive pass into Pogba forced Pickford into action to scramble the ball away from Mkhitaryan, who looked ready to pounce on the Frenchman’s cutback from the by-line; a move which came from Zlatan’s vision for the initial pass in behind.

Mkhitaryan and the Swede would combine soon after, with the Armenian substitute threading the ball through for Ibrahimovic who did well to stay level with Sunderland’s line, but after beating the offside trap he saw his effort beaten away by the advancing Pickford.

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Ibrahimovic was determined not to be outdone however, and with the game still at 1-0 there was a sense United needed another to kill the game. Another half chance would fall his way soon after, when Antonio Valencia did well down the right against Larsson, before putting in a cross which Ibrahimovic attempted to help on its way with a back heeled effort, but his connection was weak and Pickford was easily able to gather the ball.

The game was now ticking over into the final ten minutes, and it was then that Sunderland’s firm resistance would be broken. It was Pogba again who combined with the Swede, collecting the ball from Ndong’s poor pass, picking him out with a threaded through-ball after a driving run forward, and two-on-one with Djilobodji, Pogba’s delay in playing the pass left Zlatan with the freedom of the Old Trafford turf to pick his spot in the bottom-right corner and beat Pickford for 2-0.

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Ibrahimovic had not only been playing up the middle, but drifting off and running the channels with devastating effect to get in behind, and he supplied the ball for the finishing blow just minutes later, drifting out to the right to receive Valencia’s pass, before playing in a sumptuous cross which Mkhitaryan finished with a flourish, a superb back heeled volley finish to put United 3-0 up and put the gloss on a fine and hard earned victory.

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Two assists and his goal were the least Ibrahimovic deserved for an immense performance. He remained in the Sunderland half for the majority of the match, only involving himself in one aerial battle, which he won against Didier Ndong, and acted as a central focal point, linking play with teammates and running the channels to help bring others into the game. His passing was incisive and accurate, with 79% of them reaching their targets, and he was a danger throughout, with three shots on target to test Pickford, including his goal. He played a total of five key passes in the game to create chances, including his two wonderful assists, and late on, despite staying up front for most of the game, he tracked back for set piece situations when his team required at key times, making two key headed clearances, the first on 70 minutes with the game still at 1-0, and again in stoppage time, when Sunderland threatened again after Fabio Borini’s volley had cut the deficit to two goals.

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But Sunderland’s threat fizzled out, and United were good value for their victory. Ibrahimovic in particular, was one of their driving forces, just as he has been all season, and José Mourinho will need that to continue if his team are to secure their aim of a place in the top four, or even propel themselves back into the title race.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Bola Mania.

Scott is a Port Vale fan who writes regularly for The Boot Room as a freelancer. He is a fan of several sports but most of his experience in journalism comes from football and volleyball. He has produced several works on major Championships for both the FIVB and CEV in the volleyball world out in Switzerland, and is currently studying for a BA Hons in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford.

Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech



Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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English Premier League

Newcastle United 1-0 Manchester United: Three talking points from St James’ Park

Jake Jackman




Newcastle United delivered one of their best performances of the season as they overcame Manchester United in a hard-fought victory. Due to Huddersfield Town’s win earlier in the day, the Magpies started the match in the relegation zone and only three points would see them climb out of the bottom three. That is exactly what they got as they ran themselves into the ground to beat a more talented top-six team. This was the club’s first win at St James’ Park since October and it came at a crucial time. Here are three talking points from the game:

Martin Dubravka shone on his debut

Although Newcastle didn’t do a great deal of business during the January transfer window, they did make three loan signings and one of them was the star of the show on Sunday. Martin Dubravka came in for his Magpies’ debut as he replaced Karl Darlow in goal and it would have been easy to be daunted by the occasion, but the Slovakian international took it in his stride. He was near faultless, as he made a number of crucial saves and marshalled his box effectively.

Benitez has wanted a new goalkeeper since he took over at the club, but last summer’s signing Matz Sels didn’t adjust to English football and that left the manager with the problem that he inherited. Karl Darlow and Rob Elliot have shared the duties of being number one, but neither have stood out as being Premier League quality.

The addition of Dubravka supplied instant benefits, as he was quick to claim crosses and had an excellent control of his area. In the first-half, he made a crucial stop to deny Anthony Martial. With just minutes left, he made an incredible reaction save to make sure Newcastle kept hold of the clean sheet. It was a debut to remember and on this evidence, the Slovakian will be the number one at St James’ Park for the rest of the campaign.

Manchester United lacked options to change the game

There were some strange decisions made by Jose Mourinho as he tried to change the game in his side’s favour in the second half. He brought on Michael Carrick and Juan Mata for Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. This change arguably made them more predictable in attack, as the two players coming on had less pace and dynamism. The third change saw youngster Scott McTominay come on for Nemanja Matic. It was a tough ask for the inexperienced midfielder to get Manchester United back in to the game.

Although the changes arguably made the team worse, there were few options available to Mourinho, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford were all missing from the squad. Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw were on the bench, but neither are attacking players and that is what Manchester United needed.

Paul Pogba looked jaded and lacking fitness for the entire ninety minutes, but he was forced to start due to the lack of other options on Sunday. It is no excuse, but the inability to change the game did leave Mourinho short, especially after falling behind.

Newcastle won the midfield battle

As alluded to above, Paul Poba didn’t look fully fit and Newcastle United took full advantage of that as they won the midfield battle. Mohamed Diame was a figure of frustration for the first-half of the season, but he has improved significantly in recent weeks. He and Jonjo Shelvey were both superb, as they fought hard and distributed the ball well when they had the opportunity to. Between them, they made 13 ball recoveries and five key passes. They fully committed to the cause and played a vital role in the team’s victory.

The renaissance of Diame has been incredible to watch as he is now performing to the level that Rafa Benitez would have expected when he was signed last summer. However, the improvement of Shelvey could prove to be even more important in the long run. The midfielder has been difficult to manage at times due to his ability to lose his head on the pitch. On Sunday, he was a professional and remained focused, which was a mental victory for him.

The Magpies manager and the supporters will be hoping he can continue to perform to this level. If he can, the former Swansea City midfielder can be the player that everybody knows he can become.

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Which four of the ‘big-six’ clubs will qualify for next season’s Champions League?

Martyn Cooke



There are just 12 games remaining of the current Premier League season and, with Manchester City seemingly destined to secure the title, attention will now turn towards the battle to secure a place in the top-four.

There are only three places available to share between Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool and two of those clubs will be have to be content with competing in the Europa League next season.

Here, The Boot Room predicts who will finish in the top four at the end of the season…


There was once a time when the possibility of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal failing to qualify for the Champions League was unthinkable, yet the Gunners are facing the realistic possibility of missing out on playing in Europe’s elite club competition for the second consecutive season.

This campaign they have been held back by their inconsistent and unpredictable form away from home and are playing catch-up with their rivals with a five-point gap emerging between themselves and fourth place.

There is a new sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after Wenger added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his squad yet a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday would all but end their hopes – qualifying through winning the Europa League could be a more realistic option.

Prediction: 6th

Manchester United

There is currently a slight sense of disappointment around Old Trafford this season that, despite obvious progress since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, the club have had to be content with seeing cross-city rivals Manchester City stroll their way towards the Premier League title.

It is difficult to imagine Manchester United missing out on a Champions League place as they already have a considerable buffer of seven points and undoubtedly have a squad that is full of quality and experience.

The arrival of Alexis Sanchez will provide additional impetus in the closing stages of the campaign and the only real danger is that their attention might be redirected towards challenging for the Champions League or FA Cup with the title already all but lost.

However, Mouirnho has his team ticking over nicely and it is likely that they will maintain their current league position.

Prediction: 2nd  


It has been a frustrating and increasing turbulent season at Stamford Bridge following the failure of Chelsea to build on last season’s title triumph.

Back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford have left the Blues clinging on to their place in the top four and there is now a realistic possibility that they may miss out on Champions League qualification.

Antonio Conte’s frustration with the club’s transfer policy has been clear to see since the summer and the off-pitch squabbling can only be a destabilising influence for the players.

Chelsea are certainly a team that are out of form and appear to be short of confidence and direction and it will be a true test of Conte’s managerial prowess to see if he can facilitate some sort of revival in the closing months of the season.

However, momentum is currently against them and they may well be one of the two clubs to miss out.

Prediction: 6th


You get the sense that it is always two steps forward followed by one step back at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp and you never know quite what to expect.

Liverpool continue to be consistently inconsistent as demonstrated by their recent, contrasting performances against Manchester City and Swansea City.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk in the January transfer window is a boost, although recent games have suggested that he alone will not solve the club’s defensive frailties, whilst the sale of Phillip Coutinho is offset by the impressive array of attacking players that Klopp has collected.

If Liverpool can put together a good run of results then they will be able to capitalise on Antonio Conte’s woes as Chelsea and finish in the top four.

Prediction: 4th

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur supporters will now have a taste for Champions League football after the success of their team in this year’s competition and they are hitting form at just the right moment in the Premier League.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten since mid-December and have plenty of momentum with the inspirational figure of Harry Kane continuing to his remarkable, prolific run of form in front of goal.

Much will depend on whether the England striker can stay fit until the end of the season whilst they also need Dele Alli to rediscover the sparkle that he has lost in recent months.

Tottenham face a season-defining fixture on Saturday when they face Arsenal in the North London derby but they should have enough quality to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Prediction: 3rd

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