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Zlatan Ibrahimovic's return a major boost at the perfect time for Man United

Former Manchester United forward Andy Cole chats with Alexis Nunes about the futures of Rashford and Martial, Jose Mourinho and a Lukaku-Ibrahimovic partnership.

After spending seven months out of action with what was a potentially career-ending injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to the field on Saturday as Manchester United beat Newcastle 4-1.

His number may have changed, upgrading his shirt number from nine to 10 after Romelu Lukaku pinched his old digit during his absence, but it was still the same old Zlatan.

Ibrahimovic drew the same excited reaction from the crowd that he always did, starting with applause and chants when he made his way to the touchline to warm up for the first time.

Once on the field, his every touch was cheered, with fans delighted to see their talisman from last season return.

Showing no fear over protecting his knee, he came close to scoring with an acrobatic volley, which forced a save that denied him the dream comeback.

After the game, it was clear that his ego hadn't deflated during his months away from playing either, when asked about his remarkable comeback.

"Lions don't recover like humans," he said, making reference to his comments from February when asked to compare himself to other strikers.

While this bravado is entertaining enough, you can't help but agree that Ibrahimovic possesses qualities that many other humans don't have.

To suffer a knee injury to the extent that he did and be back in action months later is a fairly remarkable feat. The fact that he is now 36, with 840 games of professional football under his belt for club and country, shows perfectly how determined he is. He could have hung his boots up, yet here he is, fit and playing for one of the Premier League's title contenders.

When he was substituted with the injury in April, with United booking their place in the Europa League semifinal that evening, there were hopes he would be back for the final in Stockholm. After all, who walks off the pitch instead of leaving on a stretcher when they've suffered a serious injury? But Zlatan isn't like all the rest.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic in action for Manchester United against Newcastle.
A 35-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic still managed 28 goals over all competitions in his debut season in England.

He wasn't able to play in the final but he was a very visible figure on the pitch once the celebrations began following United's victory over Ajax. Lifting his crutches in the air, before taking the giant trophy in just one hand and celebrating with the supporters, he seemed to be in fantastic spirits.

Lesser players might have sulked that evening. This was his national stadium, where a statue of him has been made and is set to feature outside, and he should have been the star of the show. Yet he was denied the chance to show what he could do in his homeland because of the injury. 

Beaming in every photograph, you would never have known what sort of opportunity had been taken away from him that night. You would imagine that ever since signing for United the summer before, knowing the Europa League final was set to be played at the Friends Arena, that he had his eye set of playing and winning the trophy.

But it is that mentality, the one that allows him to come through huge disappointment and not give in, which enabled him to make such a quick recovery.

"I will go through this like everything else and come back even stronger," he said a few weeks after suffering the injury. "So far I played with one leg so it shouldn't be any problem. One thing is for sure, I decide when it's time to stop and nothing else. Giving up is not an option."

Lukaku will still be the main man for United but the choice to have Ibrahimovic from the bench is a huge bonus for the team. Jose Mourinho has confirmed that he won't start United's penultimate group stage game in Basel on Wednesday night but if he can get more minutes there, ahead of the more important games upcoming against Arsenal and Manchester City, he should be ready to make the difference when it matters.

United's current No. 9 has repeatedly talked about his eagerness to learn from other strikers, while Ibrahimovic was a great mentor for Marcus Rashford last season, so his involvement on and off the pitch can only be a positive thing for the attack.

It's too early to predict just how much of a difference he can make to United but the timing of his return, just before the busy winter period, couldn't be any better. 

Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.


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