After several seasons of nightmares at the Theatre of Dreams, aka Old Trafford, the darkness is starting to brighten.
Manager Jose Mourinho -- coupling his name with that of Manchester United will take some time to digest -- saluted the crowd in triumph after a pair of goals by Zlatan Ibrahimovic propelled United past a stubborn Southampton, 2-0, on Friday. Ibra shared the spotlight with debutant Paul Pogba, who showed enough in spurts while playing the full 90 minutes to suggest his billing as the all-time priciest player (transfer fee $136 million) is at least somewhat founded in merit.
Ibra’s double gives him three goals in his first two United matches, and though his partnership with Wayne Rooney is young and raw, they did connect nicely in the 36th minute to open the scoring. From near the corner flag, Rooney’s cross dropped as the massive Ibrahimovic muscled defender Jose Fonte out of the way to plant a header into the net. For the second goal Ibra drilled home a penalty kick that seemed a bit dubious, but when Luke Shaw went down, there was no question as to who would step up to the penalty spot.
The newness of this era could be seen in otherwise innocuous situations. During their time together at Chelsea, Mourninho sent away Juan Mata after noticing a penchant for glowering while on the substitutes’ bench. Mata relished the chance of a rebirth with United, yet like many players felt chafed under the reign of predecessor Louis Van Gaal.
The long-term future is a bit murky, yet on Friday, Mata started against Southampton. As Henrikh Mkhitaryan jogged onto the field to replace him for the final 15 minutes, he and Mourinho smiled and embraced. Even in the list of substitutes a different time could be gleaned. Michael Carrick, Phil Jones, and Memphis Depay didn’t make the game-day squad of 18.
In its last two visits to Old Trafford, Southampton had prevailed by 1-0 scores, which United fans regarded as a troubling yet fitting example of struggles all too typical since former manager Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down more than three years ago. Some past issues cropped up again: Anthony Martial did not dazzle; he failed to recognize an opening when Ibrahimovic was about the cross the ball, hesitated too long when presented a chance that was eventually snuffed, and lost another opportunity to a fine tackle by Virgil van Dijk. On the other hand, keeper David De Gea looked as impenetrable as ever, and the only shot to beat him was correctly disallowed for a foul.
So in the first home game of the new season is found at least some evidence of a transformed Manchester United. Up front is one of the biggest -- in personality as well as physique -- strikers in the world and driving the midfield is a player perhaps destined to rekindle memories of Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, and other Premier League greats who could dominate the middle of the park week after week, regardless of circumstance or opponent.
Many United fans bristled at the prospect of the Special One cavorting on their sidelines. But after just two games they can deservedly dream of perhaps watching the latest in a long line of special teams.