Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back, and for a guy who’s affixed his aura to the brightest stages, he’s picked a relatively shadowy nook.
Milan is 11th in the Serie A table, with its 21 total points this season representing the gap between itself and league-leading Inter Milan. The Rossoneri are also 14 points behind the Champions League spots and nearly a decade behind their shimmering best.
“I will fight with my teammates to change the course of this season,” Zlatan said of his second stint with Milan, “and I will do everything to achieve our goals.”
It probably had to be this way. None of the top clubs in the world were seriously looking at Zlatan. Some have publicly said as much, even his allies.
And why would they? Being among the best clubs in the world is almost exclusively synonymous with having the best attackers in the world. Zlatan is 38, and has never been interested in playing a supporting role. Why start now?
He’s not going to, because he’s clearly got something left in the tank. Make all the MLS jokes you want, but you don’t walk into the league and do what Zlatan did without considerable ability. He’s not going to regain the towering form he enjoyed for over a decade — lest we forget, he won 12 top-flight titles in 13 years across four countries, depending on how you feel about Calciopoli — but there’s still significant potential, even if his best days are behind him.
Milan is trying desperately to pluck itself out of the same fate. Only Real Madrid has won more European titles than Milan’s seven, and only an increasingly older set of soccer fans remember those halcyon days. The past few years, Milan has been plagued by ownership upheaval, failed rebuilds and the Financial Fair Play consequences that came with them. That’s not going to be solved overnight, and one of the first steps is making something out of this season.
That’s what Zlatan is back for. The defense isn’t the lockdown outfit, say, Liverpool and Atlético Madrid are currently, but there’s plenty to work with among Italian national team goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, center back Alessio Romagnoli and others. The problem is goals, with primary striker Krzysztof Piątek cooling off this season following his arrival last January.
Serie A is generally generous to big-bodied, physical strikers, and Stefano Pioli, who took over as manager on Oct. 9, prefers a central striker in his setups. Not to mention Zlatan played for the club two seasons around the turn of last decade, helping them win their most recent Serie A title in 2011.
So the need, the fit and the familiarity are all there. You’re also going to get Zlatan’s outsized personality, which promises extra sizzle.
It wasn’t even a month ago that Zlatan lobbed shots at Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, saying among other things that his move to the eight-time reigning Serie A champions wasn’t a challenge.
In a sense, joining AC Milan isn’t a challenge, either. Nothing much is expected of Zlatan here. It’s a low-risk proposition on all counts. The ceiling is the sheath of Champions League qualification and one last addendum to an inimitable legacy. And the floor? Well, Milan is probably on it already.
Either way, time to back up the talk. Zlatan’s first (next?) meeting with Juventus is on April 11. The first Milan derby is on Feb. 9. The first fixture, at home vs. Sampdoria, is on Jan. 5.
But of course we’re going to watch Zlatan try. The world game is better with him in its squad.
Now we get him again, for perhaps the last time.
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