Paul Pogba may have been the star attraction beneath the Friday night lights, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic stole the show at Old Trafford after his brace secured a 2-0 win over Southampton that keeps Manchester United top of the Premier League table.
The Swedish striker scored either side of half-time, firstly with a well-taken header and then from the penalty spot, as Jose Mourinho’s men dispatched the visitors in a comfortable fashion that will continue to fuel the belief that the team can challenge for the title this season.
The first home match of the season is always a special occasion for fans, yet this much-anticipated Old Trafford outing was elevated beyond the traditional sense of excitement in light of Pogba’s first appearance since returning to the club following a four-season spell at Juventus. The world-record signing’s every touch was cheered, particularly throughout the opening exchanges, and the stadium would have erupted had his shot from Ibrahimovic’s pass beaten Fraser Forster on 13 minutes.
Southampton did not excel in their first match under new manager Claude Puel, drawing 1-1 with Watford, yet they made a positive start at Old Trafford – firstly, by winning the coin toss and making United attack the Stretford End in the first half, which is against tradition. The Saints then registered shots at goal through Dusan Tadic and Shane Long, in spite of Oriol Romeu going off injured.
Wayne Rooney stung the palms of Forster with a rasping strike on the half-hour mark, and it was the captain who assisted the opener moments later. His superb cross from the right corner-flag was headed home at the back post by Ibrahimovic, the summer signing who made it three goals in as many competitive matches after his strikes in the Community Shield and at Bournemouth.
STATS AT HALF-TIME
Possession: United 47% Southampton 53%
Shots at goal: United 4 Southampton 6
Shots on target: United 3 Southampton 1
Corners: United 3 Southampton 0
Juan Mata, a scorer at Bournemouth last weekend, blazed over the crossbar and Southampton’s Tadic saw a goal disallowed for offside as the match resumed in entertaining fashion. Anthony Martial then tested Forster with a 20-yard drive from the left wing before Ibrahimovic scored from the penalty spot to double the Reds’ advantage. Luke Shaw won the spot-kick after going to ground inside the area, with Jordy Clasie the guilty party.
Pogba displayed his repertoire of attributes – strength, vision, creativity – and almost added a goal to his performance when heading over from Mata’s corner on 64 minutes. It was at this point when Mourinho turned from his technical area and nodded repeatedly to the crowd while clapping his hands together, as if he was praising their support. He had, of course, spoken about its importance on Thursday, telling MUTV: “If the fans play their part, there will be no chance for the opponent.”
Armenia captain Henrikh Mkhitaryan was introduced to the Old Trafford crowd on 75 minutes, taking the place of Mata on the right, before Martial was replaced by Ander Herrera as Mourinho looked to consolidate the victory in the professional manner that his teams have become known for.
As for Pogba, United’s new no.6, he finished the game despite not playing since the European Championship final on 10 July. While his name was not added to the score sheet, despite going close with a powerful shot wide in the 93rd minute, the 23-year-old’s industrious display in midfield hinted at what will hopefully become a stellar career back at the club he calls “home”. Welcome back, Paul.
STATS AT FULL-TIME
Possession: United 45% Southampton 55%
Shots at goal: United 11 Southampton 11
Shots on target: United 5 Southampton 1
Corners: United 4 Southampton 0
United: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw, Fellaini, Pogba, Mata (Mkhitaryan 75), Rooney (Smalling 89), Martial (Herrera 22), Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: Romero, Schneiderlin, Young, Rashford.
Southampton: Forster, Cedric, Van Dijk, Fonte, Targett, Davis (Austin 67), Romeu (Clasie 11), Hojberg, Tadic, Redmond, Long (Rodriguez 84).
Subs not used: McCarthy, Yoshida, Ward-Prowse, Pied.