- Manchester United came from behind to beat Middlesbrough on Saturday
- United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 17 goals since joining the club
- Ibrahimovic has shown he is still capable at playing at the top level aged 35
- He finished one goal behind Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for the year 2016
He was denied the honour of finishing 2016 as Europe’s joint top marksman with Lionel Messi, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t let the old year pass without a parting shot at the critics who doubted his ability to play in the Premier League at 35.
Referee Lee Mason harshly chalked off the Manchester United striker’s first-half effort for a high boot on Middlesbrough keeper Victor Valdes, meaning Ibrahimovic was stuck on a half century of goals for the year for Paris Saint-Germain and United against Messi’s total of 51 for Barcelona.
But the Swedish star doesn’t need records to prove the doubters wrong, and aimed a colourful barb at those who suggested he was past it when he arrived at Old Trafford in the summer.
‘I feel good,’ said Ibrahimovic. ‘I don’t know how many years I have left, but I am enjoying the football.
‘I came to the Premier League and everyone thought it would not be possible but, like always, I make them eat their balls.
‘It gives me a lot of energy, trust me, because they get paid to talk s**t and I get paid to play with my feet. That’s how I enjoy it.
‘Every year they (Premier League clubs) have been calling me and it was not feeling good, so I wanted to come when everyone thought I was over (the hill).’
Ibrahimovic has scored 17 goals for United, including 12 in his first 18 Premier League games. He was at a loss to explain why Mason denied him another.
‘Why he whistled, I don’t know,’ added Ibrahimovic. ‘At first he gave the goal and after 30 seconds, he changed his mind.
‘There was not a lot to say to him because if you open your mouth, they give you a yellow. But I think I had a fantastic year. I’m not complaining. I came to United and my first six months here have been more than amazing.
‘That (the record) was not important. For me, the win is the same if I would beat Messi or not.’
Grant Leadbitter made the most of Middlesbrough’s good fortune by firing the visitors into the lead, and a famous away win was on the cards until United finally made the most of their opportunities with two late goals in the space of 86 seconds from Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba.
It gave Jose Mourinho a fifth league win in a row, and in a manner reminiscent of Sir Alex Ferguson, who was watching from the stands on his 75th birthday.
Mourinho has not had long to savour the result as United head for West Ham on Monday. He will make a number of changes for a second game in 48 hours, although he insists that Ibrahimovic will lead the line again despite playing more than any other outfield player this season.
‘He will start on Monday — you can tell (Slaven) Bilic that!’ said the United boss as he breezed out of Old Trafford to enjoy the New Year’s Eve celebrations with his family. But Ibrahimovic hinted it would be a tall order to play again so quickly. ‘You need rest,’ he said. ‘There is no superman.’
There is no strength that can recover from a game so fast, and I cannot do anything about it.
‘If the coach wants me to play, I will play. I have to play, so I am available. I feel good. But, let’s be realistic, from a game you need to recover two or three days.’
Boro, meanwhile, play at home to Leicester looking for a win that would lift them back above the champions and away from the bottom three. Leadbitter was making his first start of the season at Old Trafford after fighting his way back from a hernia operation, and the Boro captain called on his team to show similar fighting qualities to make sure they stay in the Premier League.