AC Milan’s dream start in last Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina was cancelled out as Inter put a four spot on the Rossoneri in the second half to complete the 4-2 comeback victory.
Despite the outcome, Zlatan Ibrahimovic rolled back the years to his last derby from 2012, turning in his best performance since returning to the club.
Bereft of offensive production, leadership and a winner’s mentality in the squad, Milan brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic back last month on a free transfer with a desire to alter the course and overall trajectory of the current season.
As a guardian and elder statesmen of a very youth-driven Rossoneri, the Swedish international was the archetypal signing needed for immediate aid and short-term relief so the current project could get back on track.
Though there were questions raised about how much influence and impact Ibrahimovic could have, it is overtly obvious that his mere presence in the changing room, on the training ground and during match days has brushed off on the rest of the roster just as it was intended.
Exuding a winning aura and fully embracing his lion-like moniker, Ibrahimovic has proven to be of a rare breed and of a certain mould that does not come around often in football. On Sunday in his first Derby della Madonnina since 2012, the Malmo-born striker rolled back the years, proving he is in fact created differently and is the club’s top player at 38.
Spearheading the attack in a 4-4-1-1, Ibrahimovic served as the reference point for which the club worked to play off. Unlike in previous matches where Stefano Pioli deployed the silky, technical, yet raw forward Rafael Leao, it was playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu inserted instead of the Portuguese to be that bridge between midfield and the attack.
In the early stages, this idea seemed to work to perfection, with wide players Ante Rebic and Samu Castillejo getting on the ball often to push the envelope and bring the game to Inter who showed an uncharacteristically passive approach by sitting in a more defensive shell.
By doing this, Milan savored a bevy of quality chances both down the channels but also through the middle, playing through the 6 foot 5 in Ibrahimovic who remained the focal point during the entire match.
While Ibrahimovic’s legs are not quite as quick anymore, most would agree that speed has never been what his game is centered around. Instead, it is his exceptional technical ability, sleek footwork, confidence, and innate eye for goal – all of which were sorely lacking with former number nine Krzysztof Piatek.
Ibrahimovic’s feet enable him to play out of pressure in tight space when being closed down, as does his wildly eclectic eye to execute the next progressive pass. Operating with his head on a swivel, his overall intelligence and wherewithal to read the play around him loomed large in this derby and why he was able to enjoy so much success in the first half.
Ibrahimovic’s presence served as a shining beacon up top for Milan and more than just a provider of offense which he has always had in spades. Still, for all the sharpness the former Paris Saint-Germain star brings to the pitch from an advanced mental makeup, it is his ability to step up and produce under immense pressure that makes him truly special.
After 40 minutes, Rebic managed to put Milan ahead when Castillejo lobbed a ball into the penalty area, which Ibrahimovic outmuscled and out-climbed Godin to head into the Croatian’s path.
There, you saw the physical gifts of height, size and strength he has been blessed with, as well as the will and desire to not be denied in any aerial battles which the Swede won six of in this affair.
Moments later, Milan doubled the advantage through Ibrahimovic, deservedly grabbing a goal for himself after Castillejo’s swung in cross from the corner found its way towards the back post where he headed past Daniele Padelli.
Not a bad first 45 minutes from AC Milan number 21 Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Derby della Madonnina tonight:
1 shot on target
— Numero Ventuno (@VentunoNumero) February 9, 2020
Later in the second half, Ibrahimovic would manage to hit the post, but ultimately, Milan crumbled and eventually succumbed to the Nerazzurri’s roaring comeback efforts in the 4-2 defeat.
As Milan’s box office star and main gate attraction, Sunday was a showcase of all Ibrahimovic is as a footballer and possesses in his locker of talents.
It was certainly a Man of the Match showing and a full on exhibition of how one should strive to perform when the bright lights of a packed San Siro are beaming down.
Unfortunately though, the result did not follow suit, and for a serial winner like Ibrahimovic whose only fear is losing, it shall serve as fuel to continue leading this group down the right path towards success the rest of the way.