Football: Zlatan Ibrahimovic nears return as Manchester United vow to keep fighting

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring the team's first goal during the match between Bristol City and Manchester United, on Dec 20, 2017.
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring the team's first goal during the match between Bristol City and Manchester United, on Dec 20, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Zlatan Ibrahimovic is nearing a return to fitness as Manchester United seek to strengthen their grip on second place in the Premier League when they visit Newcastle on Sunday (Feb 11).

The former Paris Saint-Germain striker has struggled to get back to his best since suffering cruciate knee ligament damage during a Europa League victory over Anderlecht last April.

He made his comeback in the reverse fixture against Newcastle at Old Trafford in November, a match that Jose Mourinho's side won 4-1, but has not played since late December due to concerns over his knee.

"Zlatan started training with the team two days ago," said United manager Mourinho on Friday. "So he has been two days with the group and is improving."

Mourinho would be extremely cautious about throwing him straight back into action on Sunday, although his squad is otherwise in reasonably good health.

Defenders Eric Bailly and Daley Blind are both expected to return from ankle injuries before the end of February, although midfielder Marouane Fellaini will not make his comeback until March as he recovers from knee surgery.

Last month's defeat to Tottenham is the only blemish on United's 2018 to date, with no goals conceded in their other six league and Cup games so far this year, all of which have been won.

A 2-0 victory over Huddersfield last week, in which new signing Alexis Sanchez was outstanding, helped United make minor inroads into Manchester City's colossal lead, although the gap was still 13 points going into this weekend's fixtures.

Making up that ground in 12 matches is a near-impossible task but full-back Antonio Valencia has made it clear that United must keep up the fight, even if only to delay the inevitable.

"We need to keep going," he said. "A few years ago, we lost a title when we were eight points ahead and there were only a few games left. Now, we have a lot more games to play and we need to keep fighting."