It was one of those weekends in Serie A. Oh, you know, the sort that begins with the league leaders getting thrashed 4-1 and ends with a likely goal-of-the-season contender, while the champions drop points to a newly promoted side in between. The kind of weekend when a team can come from 3-1 down after 63 minutes to win and barely cause a ripple, because everyone is still busy talking about a picture of a lion.
The grisly image, of a big cat whose maw is dripping with blood, was posted by Zlatan Ibrahimovic to his social media accounts on Saturday night. It came captioned with a single word, “Fame” – Italian for “Hunger”.
Plenty of people had questioned Ibrahimovic’s competitive appetite when he swapped Manchester United for LA Galaxy in March 2018. When a footballer departs Europe’s top leagues in their late 30s it is often assumed that they are seeking out one last payday before retirement. But Ibrahimovic scored 52 goals in 56 Major League Soccer games before returning in the opposite direction.
His move to Milan last winter drew a mixed reaction. Fans turned out in droves to welcome back the man whose goals fired the team to their most recent Serie A title, yet the club’s directors sought to temper expectations. “The more time goes, the more difficult his salary is [to justify],” acknowledged Paolo Maldini, days before the deal was secured. “Let’s not forget we are talking about a 38-year-old who has not played a competitive game since October.”
Ten months later, we are all still talking. Ibrahimovic’s impact at Milan was immediate, scoring in his first start and helping to transform the outlook of a club that had been floundering. The Rossoneri were joint-10th in Serie A when he arrived, and averaging less than one goal per game. They finished sixth, high enough to qualify for Europe, having raised that average to more than two goals per game after his return.
On Saturday, he led Milan to their first derby win in more than four years. Ibrahimovic had been forced to take time off again this autumn, spending his 39th birthday in self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19. Any fear that he might have picked up some rust was dispelled as he punctured Inter with a pair of early goals.
He was aided by some chaotic defending. Aleksandar Kolarov has struggled badly since joining Inter, where he has been deployed on the left of a back three. The Serb got caught on the wrong side of Ibrahimovic’s run in the 11th minute and seemed to panic once his opponent broke into the penalty area, lunging into a hopeless challenge from behind.
A penalty was the only possible outcome. Ibrahimovic almost wasted it, firing too close to the goalkeeper, but reacted quickly to force the rebound home after Samir Handanovic parried. Moments later, he had his second, striding on to a cross from Rafael Leão at the back post and sweeping it home. This time Kolarov had lost track of the striker altogether.
The game was not yet decided. Romelu Lukaku pulled a goal back in the 29th minute. Some Milan supporters might already have been experiencing flashbacks to February, when they jumped out to a 2-0 lead against Inter only to finish up losing 4-2.
Lukaku almost equalised before half-time, flashing a header just wide. Achraf Hakimi did likewise after the interval. Inter were awarded a penalty of their own, only to have it taken away again after a VAR review ruled Lukaku offside. The Belgian would then go close twice more in second-half injury time, missing the target after swapping passes with Lautaro Martínez, before having a brilliant backheel blocked at close range.
Ibrahimovic was still in the fight, sending a free-kick of his own just over in the 89th minute, though in truth he had asked his manager to come out of it. “He was exhausted,” said Stefano Pioli, “but this time I did not listen to him. His contribution is so important.”
That much seems undeniable. Ibrahimovic is the leading scorer for a Milan team that have taken maximum points from their opening four games for the first time in a quarter of a century. A team that sits alone atop Serie A at the end of a round of fixtures for the first time since 2011.
Yet his impact stretches beyond goals scored. Ibrahimovic has galvanised Milan, his high expectations and competitive fury helping to elevate a talented group that had previously seemed too callow to compete at the highest levels. In public, he hogs the limelight, but ask his teammates about how he behaves in training and they will tell you that he is anything but self-obsessed.
“Ever since he arrived, he has been close to me the whole time,” said Leão in one interview. “He is always giving me pointers, telling me I can do even better, that I have the potential to become a point of reference for Milan.” Ante Rebic echoed those sentiments, saying Ibrahimovic “helps everyone”.
Perhaps even a photo of a lion can serve a purpose. Ibrahimovic’s cartoonish braggadocio makes for easy newspaper headlines but he is doing something that a manager would be lauded for – taking pressure off a young squad by drawing attention to himself. Self-belief, furthermore, can be infectious. Milan have not even finished in Serie A’s top four since 2013, but when a reporter asked Ibrahimovic whether they could win the Scudetto, he replied: “Of course.”
None of which is to paint Milan as a one-man team. The greatest credit still belongs to Pioli, who has built something unrecognisable from the side he inherited last October. Milan are anything but Ibra-dependent, winning the two games they have played without him this season by a combined five goals to nil.
The potential in this group is tantalising, from Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal, through Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernández in defence, Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer in midfield and Leão and Alexis Saelemaekers in attack. That’s not to mention Rebic, out with an injury on Saturday, or Sandro Tonali, who came off the bench. Or indeed, Hakan Calhanoglu, an old man of this squad at 26.
It was Ibrahimovic who demanded our attention on a weekend of wild stories all around the league. If Milan are able to sustain the momentum that has seen them collect the most points of any side in Serie A since the league came out of lockdown this summer, it will be because he has found a group that shares his hunger to succeed.