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Sunday 30 April 2017

Jose must plug giant Ibra gap

United won't have talisman to lean on for big Chelsea FA Cup collision

Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic remonstrates with referee Kevin Friend last Saturday Picture: Reuters
Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic remonstrates with referee Kevin Friend last Saturday Picture: Reuters

Jose Mourinho will find out soon enough if Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the glue holding his hodge-podge of money-bags signings and Fergie remnants together.

The United boss can unleash his biggest success story in Rostov tonight but he will do so knowing that for the next three games, his rock will be missing, because of a wandering elbow and some MMA with Tyrone Mings.

Zlatan's uplifting season has taken everyone by surprise and anyone, even ABUs, who hasn't raised an honest smile watching him celebrate goal after goal has no heart.

More than anything else, he understands that he was put on earth to give a show and if we all thought he was a bit feckless and unwilling to work for the team, he has proved that he is worthy of place in the Old Trafford Hall of Fame - even after seven short months. Without him, Mourinho must plan for an explosive FA Cup tie with Chelsea and more worrying for United fans with next season's Champions League in mind, for Premier League games against Middlesbrough and West Brom.

Nobody would want to face a Tony Pulis team without plenty of brawn as well as brains. Zlatan has both.

Issue

This should not be an issue for Mourinho and his club. It is nothing less than astonishing that a club which lorded it over everyone else for so long finds itself stripped bare when it comes to the kind of onfield generals which great teams must have to survive and flourish.

Mourinho has Ibrahimovic. Paul Pogba is fitfully good but mostly ordinary and Henrik Mkhitaryan is just back from injury and not really a man to lead a charge when the bullets are flying.

Wayne Rooney is a broken man, watching from the sidelines and lifting Cups without breaking sweat, a living nightmare for a player who only ever wanted to play and can't do it any more.

Without Ibra, there is a sense of vulnerability about Mourinho's team and while they have developed some promising momentum and are enjoying a very obvious lift in confidence after a good set of results,he must feel some apprehension, particularly about Chelsea.

If that goes badly wrong, Mourinho might have some brittle players on his hands travelling to Middlesbrough in ten days time.

United supporters would view this as an ultra-negative view of the road ahead after six wins on the bounce before a 1-1 with Bournemouth. But that was all about Zlatan.

In a team heavily influenced by one man, there is always a lingering after-effect if injury , suspension or a transfer means he is unavailable.

The same is true of managers as was so evident in Claudio Ranieri's stewardship of a squad heavily imprinted with the habits and attitude fostered by Nigel Pearson.

But Zlatan hasn't been around long and Antonio Conte will be licking his lips at the thought of his finely-tuned machine grinding down a headless United.

It is all the more amazing that United have so few pillars to hold the group up given the gross spend by Louis van Gaal and Mourinho which is close to £500m compared to the conveyor belt of truly great players Alex Ferguson delivered from within and from the transfer market.

Pillars

How quickly the sense of arrogant invincibility men like Keane, Cantona and Schmeichel brought has dissipated.

We picked five to highlight but there were plenty more. Mark Hughes probably deserved a place among Fergie's Indispensables as did Denis Irwin and Paul Scholes, Laurent Blanc and eventually, Nemanja Vidic.

Mourinho badly needs men like them, maybe a half dozen but that must wait.

For now. he can only hope that Pogba steps up, fills the Ibra gap and shows that he has substance as well as glitter.

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