Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not pleased with his teammates after the capitulation in the Milan derby. AC Milan had taken a commanding 2-0 lead into half-time, with the Swedish striker involved in both goals, only to allow Internazionale to steamroll to victory after four unanswered second half strikes.
“It’s difficult to explain what happened,” Ibrahimovic said after the game. “At half-time we told ourselves, the first 15 minutes going back out there will be crucial, and in that 15-minute spell we conceded two goals.
“We stopped playing, the team stopped believing, we stopped pressing, didn’t pass it around enough. From the equaliser onwards, everything collapsed. I think a lot of it is down to experience, because you must know how to control a game at 2-0 up, not just winning at the end. It’s strange, because our first half was practically perfect.”
The defeat brought to a halt Milan’s seven-match unbeaten run in all competitions – a streak coinciding with Ibrahimovic’s January arrival – and severely damaged the club’s already marginal hopes of a top four place and return to next season’s Champions League.
There is no escaping Milan’s fall from grace in recent years. One of the traditional giants of European football has lurched from one crisis to the next, with financial mismanagement having a direct impact on results and leading to exclusion from European competitions.
The club has undoubtedly fallen behind domestic rivals both in terms of tangible, attainable success and the ability to attract the pedigree of player that can close the gap on those clubs operating at the top of Italian football.
That is why the return of Ibrahimovic could prove to be a pivotal and defining moment for the Rossoneri. On the pitch, the Swede’s influence is evident – three goals in six games since his return to the San Siro testament to his immediate impact, his near two-year spell in the inferior MLS having little bearing on his ability to transition to a much higher level.
Even at 38 years old, Ibrahimovic is in top physical shape – as anyone who saw the viral clip of the striker in a near horizontal position chesting the ball during a warm-up last month can prove! The Swede also remains one of the best link-up strikers in the world thanks to his exquisite first touch, aerial prowess, and instinctive positioning. Quite simply, Milan are a better, slicker and more effective attacking unit for having Ibrahimovic in the side.
Yet, it is beyond his capabilities on the pitch where Ibrahimovic can have the most enduring impact on AC Milan and on the club’s ambitions to recapture past glories. The giant Swede is a proven champion and one of the most decorated footballers in history who has collected 11 league titles in four different countries – the Netherlands (Ajax), Italy (Inter and AC Milan), Spain (Barcelona), and France (Paris Saint-Germain). At each of those clubs – aside from Barcelona where he was embroiled in a row with then manager Pep Guardiola – Ibrahimovic has been the undisputed leader of the dressing room. A fearless competitor who demands unrelenting excellence from himself and teammates, it is the Swede who sets the standards for the squad to follow. Not many players would have the courage and strength of personality to make such direct and uncompromising comments as those made by Ibrahimovic following the Milan derby defeat.
Ibrahimovic has always been bold and unashamedly brash. Some critics might even call it arrogance, yet sky-high levels of self-confidence are an essential trait for any elite athlete, particularly one who has maintained such levels of consistent brilliance for two decades. Additionally, Ibrahimovic has earned the right to be forthright: his comments hold authority due to his standing in the game and long track record of perpetual success.
The standards of professionalism Ibrahimovic sets will not only be reserved for matchdays, either. The Swede has already been getting praise from teammates for his advice and guidance on the training pitch, while during his time at Manchester United, Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini spoke of the striker’s insatiable competitive edge: “He will do everything to win the game, even in training.”
These traits, particularly from a natural leader and strong character like Ibrahimovic, will permeate throughout the squad and raise the standards of each and every player.
Then there is the superstar status Ibrahimovic possesses. Even at 38, the Swede remains one of the biggest and most marketable stars in world football with major endorsements that accompany the game’s marquee players – from sporting retail giant Nike and bodycare behemoth Nivea to car manufacturer Volvo, highly-reputable betting company BetHard and games console Microsoft Xbox.
With all due respect to the other members of the AC Milan squad, none have the same level of pulling power and global recognition as Ibrahimovic. While being a superstar with blue chip endorsements does not in itself directly lead to improved results or affect performances on the pitch, it does provide excitement among fans and help raise the profile of the club.
Not so long ago, AC Milan needed little help in raising its profile, such was the standing of the club and plethora of stars that donned the red and black stripes. But the cold, hard truth is that Milan are not what they were 10-plus years ago, and the presence of Ibrahimovic provides a welcome boost for supporters and a timely reminder that the Rossoneri can still attract big stars.
Ibrahimovic rejoined AC Milan on an initial short-term, six-month contract with the option to extend for another year. From the club’s perspective, it is imperative they do all they can to activate the extension and keep the Swede for next season.