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Heart Of Football

Ibra might discover a Galaxy far, far away

Manchester is awash with money. City will not stop until £300 million (S$528.5 million) is spent on cherry-picking Pep Guardiola's wish list. United, not exactly the poor relation, could complete a similar sum over Jose Mourinho's second summer transfer window.

That's a cool S$1 billion on head-to-head football trafficfor clubs that finished well short of the Premier League title last season.

The hot news (from Chile) is that Alexis Sanchez will become a blue by this time next week. Reports in Spain are that Alvaro Morata is a done deal between Real Madrid and United.

Good players, obviously. Decisive match winners on their day.

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So, given the way that Abu Dhabi bankrolls City and multinational companies throw sponsorship cash like confetti at United, what does it matter if their price makes our eyes water?

But for every expensive import, there are leavers going out by the revolving door. And for every million spent on new arrivals, there are those who feel rejected.

Where would United have been this past season without his presence, his goals, his belief? He came to the EPL late, but his strength, both physical and mental, lifted a poor team that despite the towering price tags were so often dull. 

Quietly, through the annual publication of the clubs' "retained list" we find that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is no longer a Manchester United player.

The coldness is almost soulless.

Okay, the great Zlatan was an expensive item. His one-season wonder act at Old Trafford came with a reported weekly salary of £300,000.

His value to the Red Devils ended abruptly on April 20 when, after he jumped to try to head a ball during the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht, his right knee buckled beneath him.

There was no foul, no physical contact, just the strain on knee ligaments. Zlatan's body, his 1.95m frame weighing 95kg, was his own worst enemy in that split second.

The cruciate ligament, an athlete's most vital strand of sinew, snapped. It has been stitched together in the United States and the rehabilitation, like most things with this remarkable Swede, is reportedly ahead of expectations.

It would be, for Ibrahimovic is not simply a talented individual, he is driven by supreme determination.

United signed him with great fanfare, and seem to be letting him go quietly. The club has paid - and is still paying, until the one-year contract is over - very handsomely for everything it hoped for, and got, from this superstar.

Indeed, they are making their rehabilitation facilities available to this broken player for as long as he needs and wants it.

And he is a 35-year-old who has accumulated from his tour of eight clubs in six European countries enough of a fortune for a dozen careers. Yet, he will still be lonely, even vulnerable perhaps.

He puts out videos on his Instagram feed. One last month showed him, just weeks after the operation, repetitively kicking a ball with one foot and then the other.

The scar down the right knee is clear to see. The accompanying message was that the truth will never disappear: Lions don't compare themselves to humans.

The next Ibrahimovic video is enigmatic. To a background of spaghetti western theme music, the bed linen is slowly peeled back to reveal just the feet with shiny new Nike boots adorned with the Swedish flag. The implication is that he sleeps in his boots, and it is only a matter of time until he's ready to return.

I believe him.

The evidence at Malmo, then Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan, PSG and finally United has never wavered. He is bigger than most, his ability matches his ego, and with the sole exception of Barca where he clashed with the coach, Guardiola, he delivered.

Oh, and the Swedish team, too. He played 116 times for his country, scored 62 goals, and at times carried the nation on his own back.

What is happening now is a fresh process to him.

He scored 28 goals in 46 appearances for United, justifying not only his belief that the English Premier League was merely a fresh field to conquer, but also Mourinho's gamble that it was not too late for Ibra to show his worth in the most physically demanding league on earth.

In fact, where would United have been this past season without his presence, his goals, his belief? He came to the EPL late, but his strength, both physical and mental, lifted a poor team that despite the towering price tags was so often dull.

There is a dichotomy here. Mourinho suppresses even good (expensive at any rate) players by bending them to his own regimented safety-first tactics. Yet he signs Ibrahimovic, surely knowing that he would never be deterred, or made to conform.

There was collateral damage from that signing. Marcus Rashford, the teenage superstar of the previous Louis van Gaal side, spent the first half of United's season on the bench, an understudy at best to Ibrahimovic.

Rashford emerged, seemingly undamaged by the experience, to save United's skin in the Europa League after Zlatan had been carried off.

Now, with Morata's arrival imminent, subject to a contract - which doesn't always go smoothly between Madrid and Manchester - the stark truth is that Ibrahimovic has served his purpose.

No doubt Mino Raiola, the agent who sold Ibra to United as a "free" purchase, is already working the list of possible takers for a star who rejects the philosophy that age and injury diminish all.

Ibrahimovic is advised not to play again until Christmas. That would leave plenty of time for him to move to the next galaxy - LA Galaxy - before the Major League Soccer season kicks off next March.

Or, possibly, to China.

However, Ibrahimovic and his agent are looking closer to home. He believes there are two good years left in him, and wants to prove that within Europe.

Whisper it, but what if United's new signings are struggling to fill his boots by the January 2018 window? Would Mourinho reach out to the player he regarded as a phenomenon at both Inter and United?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'Ibra might discover a Galaxy far, far away'. Print Edition | Subscribe