21st November 2017.
After just 211 days out of action due to a ruptured Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) against Anderlecht, Zlatan Ibrahimovi? graced the field with his presence once again when coming off the bench against Newcastle United to a jubilant Old Trafford crowd.
When the now-retired Sweden international went to visit surgeon Dr Freddie H Fu in Pittsburgh, America, for tests to assess the damage, he came out and said Ibrahimovi? was one of the most remarkable athletes he has ever laid eyes on. To say he was impressed in what good shape he is in for a then-35 year old was an understatement. He might well be a professional athlete, but the dedication to his craft and to better himself has allowed Ibrahimovi? to play on for so long at the elite end of football.
Ibrahimovi?: The Stats
Before his injury, in 46 appearances for the Red Devils, Ibrahimovi? scored 28 and recorded 10 assists. He was pivotal to United's attack and played a pivotal part in securing the UEFA Europa League for Manchester United, which, in turn, gave them Champions League qualification.
There were frustrations with the Swede, who did, in fairness, waste a lot of golden opportunities, but his stats do not lie and he was the only player in United's squad to score more than 11 goals in all competitions.
Ibrahimovi? is your typical leader. While he might not be the captain of Manchester United, when on the pitch, there are plenty who look towards him for guidance and inspiration. He has seen it all through his two decades in the sport and, outwardly, feels no pressure; no game is too big for him.
Mourinho's Job to Balance Egos
So now that he is back and raring to go, it will be interesting to see how JosÃ© Mourinho manages the egos of both Romelu Lukaku and the former Paris Saint-Germain striker. At 36, Ibrahimovi? is still trying the impossible. His first contribution when coming on in the latter stages of the Newcastle game was to leap into the air and successfully attempt a scissor kick shot on goal. There is no doubt about it that he is superhuman. To continue to perform in the acrobatic manner he is used to, after months and months out injured, is remarkable.
When Manchester United won trophies upon trophies in the past, Sir Alex Ferguson usually operated with four centre forwards. How the Scotsman kept them all happy, only he knows, but it showed dividends at the end of the season when fatigue started to set in to the squad.
Ibrahimovi?, Lukaku & Pogba
Throughout the past two months, when Paul Pogba has also been sidelined through injury, Lukaku's goals had dried up as well as his overall influence on the game became scarce. This was, partly, due to the level of opponents being played against, but also because Pogba's absence was apparent in midfield. There is no one who can come in and give what the Frenchman can for Manchester United: skill, intelligence, a vast array of passing, and, most importantly, belief. When you have Pogba in the side, there is always hope of creating something.
The Belgian international returned to goal scoring ways last weekend and looks to be back in form. Lukaku was bought for a reason and should stay put as the number one centre forward at the club. Ibrahimovi?'s past puts him in the all-time bracket list, but his influence can be used in a slightly different manner. While he will not be starting every game, the fact Mourinho can bring him on after 70 minutes will frighten teams.
Just when the opposition are feeling the lactic acid build up in their legs, they look over and see a player who is full of energy and wanting to make it physical. That is not a pretty sight for any central defender.
Exciting Times Lie Ahead for the Red Devils
The variety in United's forward game will only improve, as well. Lukaku might have endured a baron run because teams were starting to figure out how the Belgian operates and nullified the passes into him. Ibrahimovi? offers a more physical and direct approach - he is also much better at holding up the ball and inviting players into the game.
Having Ibrahimovi? in the squad also does not automatically suggest that Lukaku will be dropped for him. Just like against Newcastle, the two players enjoyed their time up front together. To have both players on the pitch for United is going to cause havoc for defences, especially when the pressure is building and they are pinned in their own half.
Lukaku can learn a lot from how the Swede operates both mentally and on the pitch with his feet. Ibrahimovi? is a great role model to have and will only take his game to the next level by studying him and emulating different styles from him.
There is still a long way to go until the end of the season, with a lot of twists and turns to come. Mourinho will be thanking his lucky stars that Ibrahimovi? has returned as quickly as he has as Manchester United enter a season-defining Christmas period.
This article has been written by Liam Canning for Soccer Box, where you can shop all the latest Manchester United football kits. Why not get your jersey printed withÂ Ibrahimovi?, Pogba or Lukaku lettering.