Is Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan a desperate attempt to recapture former glories, or a much-needed injection of leadership to a young team? 

The prodigal son has returned home. In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last few months, a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic has re-joined Milan as a free agent. Zlatan’s contract with LA Galaxy expired at the conclusion of the season and left him free to negotiate. Whilst he was linked with moves to Everton, Napoli, and more romantically, with Bologna to play under friend Sinisa Mihajlovic, it always seemed likely that he would go back to the city he didn’t want to leave in the first place – Milan.

Ibrahimovic left in 2012 under a cloud, effectively compelled to accept a transfer to Paris Saint-Germain once it became clear Silvio Berlusconi couldn’t afford to keep the Swede on the club’s books any longer. Zlatan decamped to Paris for a fee in the region of €16m, but with his substantial wage packet off the Rossoneri books.

Milan’s then director of sport Adriano Galliani recently spoke of the fallout from Ibra’s move to Ligue 1, and revealed that the temperamental player fell out with him over the transfer. It was clear even then that Ibrahimovic loved Milan. He had spent three years in Italy’s fashion capital as a player for Inter, and a further two with the Rossoneri – broken up by a single, volatile year in Barcelona under Pep Guardiola in 2009-10.

Milan had saved Ibra from his Catalan hell and brought him back to familiar environs that summer. He repaid them with their first Scudetto in seven years, and what ultimately turned out to be their last piece of major silverware to date.

Zlatan scored 56 goals in all competitions across the two seasons at San Siro, forming great partnerships with Robinho and Antonio Cassano. For the first time in his career, he’d morphed into the undisputed leader at the club, a locker room sage who wouldn’t put up with tardiness from teammates. Ibrahimovic led by example, and didn’t suffer fools.

And then he was gone. In retrospect, his departure, along with Thiago Silva’s, to PSG marked the end of the Berlusconi era at Milan. Despite limping on for a further five years before the former Italian Prime Minister eventually sold the club, Berlusconi could no longer justify spending large quantities of money on what could be described as a vanity project. The rules of the game had changed. No longer could a football club thrive under the ownership of a single individual. An owner like Berlusconi, once at the forefront of the game, was now considered small fry.

On the pitch, Milan descended into a black hole in the post-Ibra landscape. The club would finish in the top three in 2012-13, but haven’t been close since. They last played Champions League football in 2014, when they were taken apart by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in the Round of 16, and have regularly featured in the Europa League without ever forging a deep run in the competition. The club became a laughing stock, with it a regular occurrence to see pictures on social media of great Milan sides of the past with the tagline: ‘Remember when Milan had this team?’

Fast forward seven-and-a-half years later, and the 38-year-old icon has now returned to perhaps the club he loved most in his career. Can Ibrahimovic genuinely save the club for a second time?

The signing of Ibrahimovic has divided opinion amongst the Rossoneri support. Some state that despite it being fairly obvious that he isn’t the player of 2012, he still has the charisma and the experience to lead a team of what are essentially, raw, inexperienced youngsters. Many in this camp believe that his experience is invaluable and he can guide players like Rafael Leao, Franck Kessie, Hakan Calhanoglu, Davide Calabria to develop, that he can once again perform the role of locker room leader.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that Zlatan offers precious little on the field of play at this stage in his career, citing his lack of mobility following a major knee injury in the 2016-17 season. There is the belief that his arrival is nothing more than the club harking back to a more glorious past, when the idea of winning trophies wasn’t concealed to history books. These people do have evidence to back up their theory, citing the cases of Andriy Shevchenko, Kaka returning as players and the club hiring Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi as managers, even though both were obviously out of their depth.

The truth arguably lies somewhere in between. It is abundantly clear, and it goes without saying, really, that Ibrahimovic isn’t the same player of a decade ago. Yet as already evidenced on the pitch, he can still make the difference in Serie A even at this late stage of a long and nomadic career.

He’s already netted twice since joining the club, his first away to Cagliari in what was his first full game for the club, his second came in the Coppa Italia against Torino to seal a 4-2 win.

Coach Stefano Pioli has shifted his formation to suit the Swede, going from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 and put the younger and more mobile Leao next to Ibra to do the leg work, allowing the latter to put the ball in the net – something the club struggled with in the first half of the season.

Milan’s prolificacy in front of goal is what has cost them points this season. They have one of the worst records in Serie A for goals scored, with Krzysztof Piatek, now sold to Hertha Berlin, looking especially lost at sea due to a dearth of service.

Part of their problem was an overreliance on Spanish winger Suso creating that service, but Suso has been out of form for the better part of two years. By the end was resembling a low-cost version of legendary Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben, only without the end product.

Suso was shipped out to Sevilla in the January transfer window and Ibra’s arrival has undoubtedly changed Milan’s fortunes for the better. Whilst they are still a work in progress, and no one could deny there are issues that need defining, the team look more threatening, and also more cohesive, than they did pre-Ibrahimovic.

His presence on the pitch offers them a presence that they simply lacked with Piatek, who seemed to wither under the pressure of being a Mian player with each passing week. Zlatan now offers an outlet, a target for full-backs Theo Hernandez and Calabria to aim for, in addition to wingers Ante Rebic and Samu Castelijo.

Zlatan has signed a contract with the club for six months, with the option to extend for a further 12. While it is very early doors, the signs are positive. Yes it is a damming indictment of how far Milan had fallen that a 38-year-old has reinvigorated a team with their history but the club needed an injection of quality to get out of their predicament, and in the January transfer window there aren’t exactly a lot of options around.

Ibrahimovic could just be the tonic that this ill version of Milan needs, and whilst a decade ago the situations were reversed, it is Milan that undoubtedly need the Swede’s experience now. And he could just drag the Rossoneri back into contention for that fabled top four spot and end their six-year hiatus from a competition they have won more than anyone with the exception of Real Madrid. The lion, as Ibrahimovic likes to refer to himself as, is starting to roar once more.

Notable

Gattu-so far, so good

Replacing Carlo Ancelotti with Gennaro Gattuso seemed certain to end badly for Napoli. But, Emmet Gates writes, the early signs are good.

The appointment raised eyebrows, especially given the man who he was replacing, but Gennaro Gattuso is slowly turning the Napoli tide and confounding expectations.

Gattuso replaced his former coach, Carlo Ancelotti, in mid-December, despite Ancelotti securing entry into the Round of 16 in the Champions League for only the third time in the Napoli’s history.

Ancelotti was judged to have lost the dressing room in the aftermath of the so-called ‘player mutiny’ in which players refused to return to the team’s forced stay in a hotel, and instead went home. Gattuso was drafted in, and promptly lost four of his first five matches in charge, equalling a record set by Zdenek Zeman when he was in charge of the Partnenopei in 2000-01.

However, Gattuso masterminded two victories against high-flying Lazio and Juventus inside a week and secured a 4-2 away win against Sampdoria. Suddenly, it seems the former Milan coach is stopping the Neapolitan ship from sinking.

It’s still early doors yet, but it seems Gattuso has stopped the rot. With reports that under his tutelage, Napoli are running 10km more per game than under predecessor Ancelotti, and with several new signings in the shape of Diego Demme, Stanislav Lobotka and Matteo Politano all arriving in the January transfer window, Gattuso may just have given the club the impetus it needs to break into the top four, an objective seemingly unthinkable two months ago.

Notable

It looked as if Cristiano Ronaldo’s powers were on the wane as 2019 came to a close. But, Emmet Gates reports, he’s passed his 35th birthday looking as dangerous as ever…

There’s no stopping Cristiano Ronaldo at the moment. The Portuguese star has truly hit top form in the last month after speculation that things weren’t rosy between the player and coach Maurizio Sarri.

Ronaldo had struggled in October and November for the Old Lady, and could only seem to score from the penalty spot. He was substituted in two consecutive games for the first time in a decade, and in typical Ronaldo fashion, he didn’t take it well. To put it simply, Ronaldo didn’t look fit, or anywhere close to it.

This was denied by Portugal coach Fernando Santos, who claimed the player was fine and passed all their physical tests. Ronaldo promptly scored a hat-trick against Lithuania in a 6-0 win and the rumours went into overdrive.

However Sarri reaffirmed his stance, stating that Ronaldo had been struggling with a knee injury, finally the player broke his silence and revealed that yes, and he had indeed been struggling with a problem.

The player was given some time off to recuperate, and since December, Ronaldo has regain his goal scoring mojo. He scored in nine consecutive Serie A games to start 2020, equalling a Juventus record set by David Trezeguet in the 2005-06 season. Ronaldo is second in the Capocannoniere charts, behind Lazio’s Ciro Immobilie. He also hit his first Juventus hat-trick in the 4-0 home win against Cagliari.

He reached 50 goals for Juventus in just 70 games. As the player celebrates his 35th birthday, it’s fair to say that Ronaldo is hitting form just when Juve need him most.

Leave a Reply