July 26, 2021

Can milestone man Zlatan inspire AC Milan to title?

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic smashed the 500 landmark for career club goals with a double in AC Milan’s 4-0 win over Crotone on Sunday – but could the veteran Swede help Milan win their first Scudetto in a decade and end Juventus’ nine-year dominance?

Ibrahimovic fired Milan ahead in the 30th minute with his 500th club goal and extended that tally in the second half to secure the win and send Milan back to the top of Serie A – two points ahead of Inter.

The 39-year-old has now scored 14 league goals and another two in cup competitions this season and is just two shy of Cristiano Ronaldo atop the Serie A goal chart – despite playing only 876 minutes to date.

Just how does he keep on doing it? Is a contract extension on the cards? And could that title really finally be leaving Turin? We crunch Ibrahimovic’s incredible numbers and get the inside track from Italy.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has surpassed 500 club goals with a double on Sunday
Image: Zlatan Ibrahimovic has now surpassed 500 club goals

The numbers: Zlatan as ruthless as ever

The 39-year-old appears as lethal as ever, with his ratios for goals, shots, aerials and final-third passes ranking among Europe’s elite this term.

Broken down, the graphic below reveals how Ibrahimovic frequently passes in the opposition half but primarily attempts dribbles in the box – to carve openings for shots at goal.

PA IMAGE

Ibrahimovic is enjoying his second spell at Milan following a successful four-year stint at the club from 2012 – having previously played for Serie A rivals Juventus (2004-2006) and won three Scudettos at Inter between 2006 and 2009.

The Swede made an impact during two seasons at Manchester United from 2016, despite suffering a severe cruciate injury in 2017, but left to LA Galaxy in 2018 – returning to the San Siro after two successful campaigns in MLS.

Ibrahimovic transfers

From To Date Fee
Malmo Ajax Jul, 2001 £5m
Ajax Juventus Aug, 2004 £12m
Juventus Inter Aug, 2006 £20m
Inter Barcelona Jul, 2009 £56.5m
Barcelona AC Milan Jun, 2011 £24m
AC Milan PSG Jun, 2012 £15.7m
PSG Man Utd Jul, 2016 Free
Man Utd LA Galaxy Mar, 2018 Free
LA Galaxy AC Milan Dec, 2019 Free

His 22-year senior career began with a solitary goal for boyhood club Malmo during the 1999 campaign. His numbers and levels soared with a world-class trajectory – peaking at 50 goals in the 2015/16 campaign with Paris Saint-Germain.

There’s a romantic plot unravelling in Italy. Milan have gone a decade without a league title – last winning it in Ibra’s first stint at the club in 2011 – and are looking to deny Juventus a 10th-successive crown.

Derby della Madonnina

Inter won the Coppa Italia Milan derby 2-1 a fortnight ago, with Ibrahimovic scoring before being sent off in the 58th minute. But the two clubs meet again in Serie A on February 21.

Would Zlatan bow out with a fifth and final career Scudetto when his contract expires this summer? The Swede would dismiss any age-related decline and proclaim his undoubted greatness. His numbers would support that argument.

The insight from Italy: ‘Zlatan’s changed AC Milan’s mentality’

AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, center left, and Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku, center right, argue during an Italian Cup round of 8 soccer match between Inter Milan and AC Milan (AP image)
Image: Zlatan Ibrahimovic has brought a ‘winning mentality’ to AC Milan

Sky in Italy’s AC Milan reporter Peppe Di Stefano:

Ibrahimovic is an all-round, 360-degree athlete – the first to arrive at the Milanello training ground in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening. Injuries and Covid aside, he lives and breathes football and especially life at the training ground, even when he’s recovering from his short, medium or long-term injuries.

Even at meals, he never lets himself go and has one more glass or some more pasta, because he lives his career maniacally. You need to have something more than the rest of the younger players to keep up at the same pace, and most of the time that means looking after your nutrition, paying attention to those specific little details of your life.

He completely changed the mentality of everyone around Milanello. Even in a small training match he gets really mad if his team loses, and when he wins he celebrates and taunts his team-mates, sometimes even slightly over the top. But that says all about him, he created some competition within the group that wasn’t really there before he arrived.

GRAPHIC

His stats are embarrassingly good – when he plays, he scores. But numbers aside he’s the man who single-handedly changed Milan’s history. In 2011 he led them to their last Scudetto and since he re-signed for the club Milan went back to their glory days and ceased being a sleeping giant.

He was playing MLS play-off football with LA Galaxy but at 39 years of age, he decided to return in the European scene for a new challenge. That’s the biggest thing about Ibrahimovic, he’s doing this at an age that nobody can match, performing at a high level every weekend.

In my opinion, he has single-handedly helped bridge a lot of the gap with the top clubs. It’ll be really complicated to see AC Milan win the league: I think there are sides, namely Inter Milan and Juventus, which are more equipped to do that.

But at the moment they are in the mix; head-to-head games are really crucial and the transfer market plays a big part too. His arrival can’t just be a coincidence, and there’s no denying he played a massive part, going even beyond his wildest expectations. If he keeps it up we’ll be able to talk about one of the great AC Milan sides.

The contract situation: Will he stay?

Sky in Italy’s AC Milan reporter Peppe Di Stefano:

Everything will be done with the utmost calm. The more he performs, the more complicated it becomes for the Milan board to decide not to extend his current deal.

He’s a beautiful double-edged sword for AC Milan. Obviously, the team depends on him, on his mood, his skills, his goals – and inevitably, if you find yourself without Ibrahimovic one day, you either need to sign a top-class striker of that same mould, or you need to find another solution.

That’s the problem but perhaps the real problem is finding Zlatan’s limit. If he was still 36 there likely would have been no problem at all, but he’s 40, so you need to pay attention to the club’s judgement. Everybody recognises that he’s very demanding, but only he will know when it’s time to pull the plug.

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic said his age was irrelevant after signing a contract with AC Milan

I think that, come the end of the season, he will tell the club, ‘I want to carry on playing’. If that’s what is going to happen, then the ball is in the club’s court. But Zlatan needs to give the first answer. Maybe if Milan win the league he will say, ‘I’ve achieved this great feat, I led the club to the Scudetto’ or, ‘I led the club back to Champions League football’, so he will quit. Or he’ll say the opposite!

You also need to read into the stats. When he’s playing, he’s absolutely lethal. But he’s been out for the better part of half a season already, he played 11 games out of 22 or 23. You have to be objective.

Serie A going down to the wire?

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after putting Juventus 1-0 up against Roma (AP)
Image: Can Zlatan Ibrahimovic beat another evergreen forward, Cristiano Ronaldo, to the title?

Sky Sports’ Tommaso Fiore:

It’s the age-old question – will anyone finally dethrone Juventus? It’s hard to predict right now, but it feels like a variety of factors are contributing to brew the perfect storm and stop the champions from making it 10 in a row.

Inter Milan have their best shot at a league title since Jose Mourinho won the treble and left in 2010. In Antonio Conte they have found a top-class manager who, through quality signings and rigorous coaching, has been able to finally find the right groove, unlock the next level and make his side credible title contenders.

Not only do they own the best manager, they can also boast the best midfielder, right full-back and target-man in Italy – Nicolo Barella, Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku, their ultimate clutch players. Crashing out of Europe was a let-down for Conte but it will only help add fuel to his anger – without any mid-week commitments, the Scudetto is seen as the minimum goal to avoid a bigger sense of disappointment.

Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have said a few things down the years
Image: Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are tussling at the top of Serie A

AC Milan under Stefano Pioli have become a genuine force to be reckoned with. They have retained top spot week after week ever since their fourth outing, with relentlessness, togetherness and never-give-up attitude. They can’t boast the same strength in depth as their contenders, so they won’t be able to afford any blips in form – but providing that doesn’t happen, they’ll be in it to win it. Their performances 20 games in are well worthy of Scudetto winners.

Juventus have seen something of a transformation under Andrea Pirlo. The team does not have an identity as of yet, it garners bits and pieces from the philosophy of its two previous managers – combining Max Allegri’s low block, functional, sit-back-and-counter style with Maurizio Sarri’s high-press, two-touch football.

But, without playing the most attractive football in Italy, they are still the team to beat. The sheer quality in their squad means Pirlo has so many ways to win games. With 16 goals in 16 starts, it’s not an exaggeration to say Juve always start their games 1-0 up just by fielding the ultimate evergreen, Serie A’s top scorer – Cristiano Ronaldo.

Could any other side join the race? Lazio enjoyed a recent resurgence, Roma win all their games but fade in the big ones, Atalanta proved they’re still a perfectly-oiled, destructive machine on their day and Napoli are the ultimate on-and-off side. But currently it looks like a three-horse race and, once again, it’s the most decorated clubs leading the way.