In the end, perhaps it was just inevitable that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would insist on having the final say. Southampton had given everything to drag themselves level and, for long spells, it had felt as if Manchester United were about to fall to one of the more improbable comebacks of any Wembley final. It would need a flint heart not to feel sympathy for the losing side but this is why José Mourinho was so determined to being Ibrahimovic to his club: the big moments on the occasions that really matter.
The clock had ticked into its 87th minute when United’s new talisman applied the decisive header. The same player had opened the scoring with a free-kick in the first half and his second goal brought a measure of relief as well as jubilation bearing in mind the exceptional effort Southampton had put into giving their opponents an almighty scare.
Mourinho is certainly entitled to wonder why his side made life so difficult for themselves once Jesse Lingard continued his run of Wembley goals by doubling their lead seven minutes before half-time. For that, Southampton deserve immense credit. It is possible to lose while also playing with distinction and they managed both here on a day when Manolo Gabbiadini, their £14m signing from Napoli, was a worthy contender to be recognised as the game’s outstanding player.
Gabbiadini’s first goal arrived in first-half stoppage-time, followed by another three minutes into the second half, and he would have had a hat-trick but for a trigger-happy linesman raising his flag to rule out one when the game was goal-less. United’s supporters of a certain generation have spent many years grizzling about Bobby Stokes’s goal in the 1976 FA Cup final – once described as so far offside that Southampton’s match-winner was almost in Hendon – but this one undoubtedly went in their favour and, for Southampton, it will be of little consolation that football’s law-makers will be convening at Wembley on Friday to discuss the merits of video replays.
Nobody can know what would have happened had that goal stood, but it is certainly worth remembering on the next occasion Mourinho complains about perceived refereeing injustices.
Eight minutes later, Oriol Romeu scythed down Ander Herrera in a central position 30 yards from goal. Romeu was shown the game’s first yellow card but the real punishment for Southampton came in the form of Ibrahimovic’s formidable right boot. From that distance, however, Fraser Forster will have to accept a portion of blame bearing in mind the shot was only two-thirds of the way across his goal. It was a leaden-footed attempt to reach the ball and a bad day for a lapse of this nature.
This was essentially the reason why Southampton’s players finished the match on their knees. They moved the ball around confidently and, on either side of Gabbiadini, Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse were difficult, elusive opponents. Defensively, however, they were unable to show why they had shut out Liverpool over two legs in the semi-final and become only the second team in history – Tottenham in 1981-82 being the other – to reach this final without conceding a single goal.
Lingard’s goal was a case in point. From United’s perspective it was a slick exchange of passes involving Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Marcos Rojo before Lingard slotted an expertly placed shot into the bottom corner of the net. Equally, Southampton had plenty of players back without getting close enough to the ball. Lingard’s shot went through the legs of Maya Yoshida and, at that stage, it was difficult to see any other conclusion than a straightforward United win.
Instead, Southampton’s players shook their heads clear and came back with a level of determination and skill that seemed to surprise their opponents. Gabbiadini’s first goal came from close-range, clipping Ward-Prowse’s low delivery through David de Gea’s legs when the United goalkeeper might have been better advised going for the cross with his hands rather than his feet. Claude Puel had been facing the ordeal of a half-time team-talk at 2-0 down, but that goal dramatically changed the complexion of the match and when they came out for the second half they were straight on the attack.
As well as Gabbiadini’s second goal, they could also reflect on the header that Romeu, getting the better of Paul Pogba directed against the post from one of Ward-Prowse’s corners. Gabbiadiani’s equaliser was superb, waiting for a header to drop in a congested penalty area before firing a swivelling shot past De Gea, despite the close proximity of two United defenders, and there was no doubt in those moments that Southampton fancied themselves to complete the recovery.
Ibrahimovic had other ideas, scoring with a precise header from Herrera’s cross to register his 26th goal of the season and put Mourinho level with Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough with his fourth League Cup triumph.
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