Manchester United embarrassed as Zlatan holds fallen giants to ransom
Zlatan Ibrahimovic might just be doing Manchester United a huge favour if he decides to reject a one-year contract extension at Old Trafford and head west to Major League Soccer at the end of this season.
For a club of United's stature, arguably the biggest and wealthiest in the game, to be left hanging on the telephone by a player who is six months short of his 36th birthday does not project the image of a team or organisation with an eye on the future.
Ibrahimovic has undoubtedly been a revelation for United since arriving on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain last summer, scoring 27 goals in 42 appearances, including two in the dramatic 3-2 EFL Cup Final victory over Southampton at Wembley in February.
The Swede has scored 17 more goals than United's second top scorer, Juan Mata, and exposed the dismal return of fellow forwards Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney, who have netted just 19 between them in all competitions.
Little wonder, then, that Ibrahimovic is making United sweat over his future. A one-year contract is on the table, but the former Inter Milan, Barcelona and PSG striker knows his value to the club -- as a goalscorer, talisman and commercial asset -- and he also wants to end his career on a high, rather than dragging himself around the outposts of the Europa League again after a career spent enjoying life in the spotlight as one of the star performers in the Champions League.
So if United and Jose Mourinho want him to stay, Ibrahimovic is making sure they earn the right to keep him and make it impossible for him to leave for a new adventure in MLS.
He spoke on Tuesday, after scoring a stoppage time equaliser against Everton at Old Trafford, of the need for United to "create bigger" to convince him to stay, but there is something not quite right about this current stand-off.
This is, after all, Manchester United, and it is nothing short of embarrassing for a club of their standing to be held to ransom by a 35-year-old. Yet it sums up the malaise at Old Trafford that has afflicted the club in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era that they are allowing Ibrahimovic to dictate terms.
Perhaps it needs Ibrahimovic to walk out the door at the end of the season to shake the club out of that stupor. Mourinho needs to rebuild a squad that was drained of confidence and belief by David Moyes before Louis van Gaal embarked on his hapless transfer dealings, which saw good players leave and average ones replace them.
It was the absence of quality and personality in the United squad he inherited which prompted Mourinho to sign Ibrahimovic last summer. But while Ibrahimovic was just the man United needed a year ago, he cannot be the solution again 12 months on.
United need new blood, and young blood, so the priority should be to find a proven goalscorer in his mid-20s rather than retaining one in his mid-30s. By all means, do both, but Ibrahimovic must now be viewed as part of the jigsaw rather than a central piece. And if United win the race to sign Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid or somehow persuade Bayern Munich to do business over Robert Lewandowski, then Ibrahimovic can decide whether he wants to stick around in a support role rather than as the leading man.
If he leaves, United will have no option but to add at least two new strikers to their squad. That should be the focus of their attention right now. Rooney, at 31, is clearly no longer required by Mourinho judging by his lack of opportunities in recent months, so United could be left with Rashford and Martial as their only two strikers by the end of the season. The pair of them have great potential, but their struggles for form this season have highlighted the risks of placing too much responsibility on young shoulders.
Ibrahimovic's goals and performances have therefore been both a blessing and a curse for Mourinho. He has rescued United on countless occasions and kept them within touching distance of a top four finish -- he may even lead them to Europa League glory in Stockholm next month -- but he has been a sticking plaster. Removing it will show that United still need plenty of corrective surgery to fix their problems.
His departure this summer would be a blow for United, but history shows the loss of a big personality can lead to regeneration and growth. Twenty years ago next month, Eric Cantona called time on his United career at the age of 30, after scoring 82 goals during a glorious five-year spell at the club.
It was a hammer blow at the time and United won nothing the following season, but Cantona's departure prompted Ferguson to rebuild his attacking options and two years later, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the goals to fire United to the Treble.
If Ibrahimovic goes, United will have to get on with it and learn from the lessons of the past.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_