What a game.
Sixty seconds before half time, Southampton were 2-0 down in the League Cup final, the enthusiasm quickly draining from their fans after Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jesse Lingard had put Manchester United ahead.
No United manager had won a major trophy in their first season, but Jose Mourinho would have felt supremely confident of becoming the first.
Three minutes after the break, Southampton were level, a sea of red and white scarves twirling in the damp North London air with the stirring words of “When the Saints go marching in” ringing around the 31,000 fans who had travelled to Wembley Stadium from England’s south coast.
Poor defending had cost United, plus two strikes from Manolo Gabbiadini, the supremely confident and in-from Italian striker who only signed from Napoli last month.
Southampton, whohad only knocked out Premier League opponents en route without conceding a goal, were ascendant, with Oriol Romeu’s header smashing against David de Gea’s post as United failed to find their stride in the second half.
“Ooh Gabbiadini,” chimed their fans as they went for a winner, with Mourinho angry on the touchline as his side struggled.
With 15 minutes of normal time to play, the game began to lurch back towards United’s favour, just as it had done in the first half.
United weathered early Southampton impetus with a solid, if not spectacular performance that has become the norm under Mourinho.
They took the lead when referee Andre Mariner blew for a 19th-minute free kick and Ibrahimovic grabbed the ball.
No other United man stood a chance of taking it, not Paul Pogba, the world’s most expensive player and certainly not Wayne Rooney, who was kept on the bench despite an injury to Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The Swede made a 30-yard free-kick look simple as he struck it cleanly over the Southampton wall and to the right of a loitering Fraser Foster.
As Ibrahimovic sprinted back into his own half to celebrate, Mourinho walked back to the bench and took a sip of water.
He had reason to feel confident: when United have scored first this season, they have never lost. Not only that, it was Ibrahimovic’s 13th goal in nine games against Claude Puel’s side.
United’s control appeared complete when Jesse Lingard guided Marcos Rojo’s ball in after 38 minutes, his third goal in his last three appearances at Wembley. Then Gabbiadini, who had scored in each of last six games, took the edge off United’s lead and then levelled.
Ryan Bertrand and Nathan Redmond had threatened on the left, Dusan Tadic too.
Life was good as Southampton’s fans held their phone lights aloft in the 62nd minute in honour of their late chairman Markus Liebherr, who had instigated their rise from England’s third tier back to the top in 2009.
He would have been proud.
With the encounter ebbing and flowing and both sides full of attacking intent to the delight and nerves of the 85,264 crowd, both sides pushed for a winner.
Southampton had not played for 12 days, United had the star players. Extra time loomed, but if there was one player who could decide the game, it was Ibrahimovic. After 87 minutes, the No 9 headed a delightful cross from Ander Herrera in from six yards for his 26th of the season. If he continues at this rate, he is going to score as many goals as he has 35 years.
United’s fans held their phone lights aloft, their end lit up.
The final whistle blew, the United end roared, the Southampton fans applauded their players’ endeavours as the United support stayed to cheer the players on the long walk up the Wembley steps.
On the pitch, the United players celebrated in front of their joyous fans, a first major trophy in the bag for Mourinho’s men.
“This is what I came for – to win,” Ibrahimovic said. This – and more – is why United went for him, Pogba and Mourinho. Fans hope will it is only the start.
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