‘Milan never had a king, they have a God.’
The Swede rarely needs an excuse to deliver a memorable, self-aggrandising line. This is the man who once said he’s ‘just a human in the same way a great white shark is just a fish’.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored both goals as AC Milan beat rivals Inter at the San Siro last weekend
The legendary striker declared after the game: ‘Milan never had a king, they have a God’
But there was at least substance to his boast this time. The 39-year-old striker scored both goals in a 2-1 win at the San Siro that secured Milan’s first derby victory in Serie A since January 2016, and their first ‘away’ win in the fixture for almost a decade.
It left Stefano Pioli’s side alone at the top of the table for the first time since 2011-12, with four wins from their opening four games.
Although Ibrahimovic has never struggled with self-esteem issues, even he can’t have expected his Rossoneri return to be such a triumph.
Celtic couldn’t have picked a worse moment to face Ibra and his team-mates. Confidence is coursing through Milan once again, and belief is building that one of Europe’s most decorated clubs might finally be emerging from the doldrums after years of mediocrity, mismanagement and underachievement.
Milan go into the Europa League game with Celtic in great form and they sit top of Serie A
Celtic could not have picked a worst time to play the Italian giants after losing to Rangers
Milan haven’t graced the Champions League since their last meeting with Celtic, in the group stage of the 2013-14 campaign, when the Italians won 2-0 at home and 3-0 in Glasgow.
Their last scudetto came in 2010/11, and the club’s last genuine title challenge was the following year, when they finished runners-up.
Ibrahimovic was Milan’s top scorer in both those seasons, and their decline followed his sale to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2012.
It would be rather poetic, then, for the veteran striker to carry the club back to the summit of Italian and European football. Judging by how things have gone so far, that could be where they’re heading.
Zlatan’s brace against Inter took his tally for this season to five goals in three games, with his positive test for Covid-19 and recovery evidently doing little to put him off his stride. ‘Covid had the courage to challenge me — bad idea,’ he remarked.
But the former Manchester United striker’s transformative impact goes back beyond the dawn of the 2020-21 campaign.
He returned to Lombardy in December 2019 on a six-month deal, but few expected to see the same player who left Italy eight years earlier, especially after a year-and-a-half playing in the less demanding environs of Major League Soccer with LA Galaxy.
Zlatan returned to Milan in January and has proven he can still play at the top the game
Ibra soon silenced his doubters, netting in his first start against Cagliari to reach the remarkable landmark of scoring in top-flight leagues in four consecutive decades from the 1990s to the 2020s.
He settled quickly, and his team-mates fell in line too. Ibrahimovic’s influence soon became apparent, as one of Italy’s youngest squads benefited from the advice of a star they had grown up watching.
Rafael Leao is one example. The 21-year-old Portuguese forward initially struggled following his €35million move from Lille last summer, but has shown steady improvement and has two goals and a match-winning derby assist in three Serie A appearances so far this term.
‘In training sessions, Ibrahimovic stays very close to me. Since he arrived he’s had this attitude with me,’ Leao said in April. ‘He tells me I can do much better and that I have the potential to become a reference point at Milan.’
When Ibrahimovic returned, a talented but inconsistent Milan side were on a three-match winless run that included a humiliating 5-0 drubbing to Atalanta.
But there was no stopping Zlatan, or Milan, once he settled. The veteran hit double figures in Serie A by the end of the campaign, finishing as the club’s second-top scorer, one goal behind Ante Rebic’s 11 strikes.
Young striker Rafael Leao has prospered and improved under the guidance of the Swede
Milan have lost just twice since his arrival, and they were the strongest team in Italy when football returned after lockdown, winning nine and drawing three in their final 12 games to finish sixth.
The Rossoneri top all sorts of statistical charts for that period. Highest average points per game (2.63), most wins (13), most goals (44) and most clean sheets (6) in Serie A since football’s return.
Pioli deserves his share of the credit. He has brought a consistency of selection, settling on a 4-2-3-1 formation that allows his players to operate in their most natural roles.
Hakan Calhanoglu, who misses the trip to Glasgow through injury, has thrived in his favoured No 10 role after being shunted out to the wing by previous coaches, while Franck Kessie has rediscovered his best form as a holding midfielder.
Last summer’s signings, notably Rebic, Ismael Bennacer and Theo Hernandez, have got better and better. Pioli hasn’t discouraged Hernandez’s trademark bombing runs, which saw him score seven goals from left-back last season, instead tweaking his tactics to ensure the defence and midfield can cover for the ex-Real Madrid man when he surges upfield.
Manager Stefano Pioli has also brought a consistency of selection with a 4-2-3-1 formation
With Zlatan and Pioli’s leadership, Milan look capable of mounting a challenge in Europe
The squad was strengthened further this summer with the arrival of Italian football’s €35m golden boy Sandro Tonali from Brescia, as well as loan moves for Real Madrid winger Brahim Diaz and Manchester United full-back Diogo Dalot.
This side are starting to look worthy of the famous striped jersey. That hasn’t been the case in the past six years. Since Massimiliano Allegri’s exit in 2014, Milan have been through seven coaches, finishing no higher than fifth and as low as 10th in Serie A.
But with Pioli’s leadership off the field and Ibrahimovic’s on it, they look capable of mounting a challenge at home and abroad.
If Zlatan can lead the club back to the Champions League — or achieve something even better — the fans might start to wonder if they do have a god in their ranks after all.