– Late Zlatan winner hands Manchester United the EFL Cup and a bright spot for the Mourinho Era

February 26, 2017

The bare truth is that finals of major competitions – or even second-tier ones – seldom live up to their billing. They tend to be regressive, cautious affairs with the teams more concerned with preventing goals than scoring them.

The 2016-17 EFL Cup final was not such a final.

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It was an epic in which Southampton knew that it had little to lose and that Manchester United was quite beatable on the day. While United, in turn, was acutely aware that the individual talent within its ranks could capitalize on the mistakes committed by the adventurous Saints.

Manolo Gabbiadini scored a hat trick for Southampton, although only two of those goals were allowed to stand. Which is how United managed to win 3-2 on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s free kick and 87th-minute headed winner and Jesse Lingard savvily taking advantage of a defensive mental error.

Southampton was hard done by, though. Because the Saints should have gone ahead, were it not for an errant flag from the assistant referee. And after they didn’t take the lead, United did by scoring twice. Southampton managed to claw back into the game and make it 2-2, but then Zlatan struck the final blow.

In the 11th minute, Gabbiadini, the Italian acquired from Napoli last month and in sensational form since his arrival, was totally onside on a tap-in from Cedric’s low cross – kept on by Chris Smalling. The man behind him, however, was not. And since he had no involvement in the play, the goal should have stood.

Zlatan wasn’t moved by the fact that Southampton was robbed of a goal. In the 19th minute, he hit a long free kick that cut right over the wall and zipped past goalkeeper Fraser Forster.

Some 20 minutes later, Marcos Rojo found Lingard in an inexplicable pocket of space in the box, where a gaggle of defenders left him far too much room. Lingard tucked his finish cleanly into the net.

It was an odd state of affairs, as the Saints were the better team yet somehow found themselves down by a pair of goals. And things almost got entirely hopeless when Jack Stephens narrowly escaped a red card on a rash, studs-up tackle.

But the tide began to turn before halftime. In injury time, James Ward-Prowse overlapped on the right and was found by Nathan Redmond. Gabbiadini managed to get a toe on the low cross and sent it skittering past David De Gea and and over the goal line.

In the 48th minute, Gabbiadini did it again (his third goal, if you count all the ones that should have stood). He found a quarter of an inch of space on a bouncing ball between Eric Bailly and Rojo and volleyed the equalizer past the stunned De Gea.

After the hour, Oriol Romeu nearly put Southampton ahead, but his header knocked off the upright.

The sides exchanged chances for the winner, but on a long and slow counterattack, Zlatan had the final word. United got a few too many uncontested passes in the final third and, eventually, Ander Herrera lifted a cross onto the Swedish veteran’s head. He hammered home the header to beat Southampton at last.

And so United lifted the fifth EFL Cup – recently rebranded from the League Cup – in its existence. That silverware tied the Red Devils with Liverpool to make United the most successful English club of all time, with a 41st major trophy.

The EFL Cup has often been marginalized, contested largely by reserve teams of the big clubs in the early rounds. It is very much the second-tier English cup tournament behind the FA Cup, which has been diminished in its own right.

But this win nevertheless was meaningful to United – and would have been to Southampton as well. The Saints just don’t get to a lot of finals. And United had won just one competition – last year’s FA Cup – since Sir Alex Ferguson ended his historic run as manager after the 2012-13 season.

If United is to climb back atop its old perch as England’s premier club, winning things is obviously helpful. The bored-looking Jose Mourinho has won a trophy in his maiden season in Manchester. That might buy him time if he needs it at any point down the line.

It took Ferguson 3½ seasons to win his first piece of silverware with Manchester United. Up in the stands, the old Scot stood, watched, and smiled.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet. – All News First!

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