Zlatan was pivotal yet again in the comeback win over Juventus.
At the turn of the year, Stefano Pioli, having been brought in to rescue Milan’s season as early as October, was struggling.
The squad at his disposal was a misfitting shambles. They’d just lost 5-0 to Atalanta, their worst defeat in more than 21 years, and were more concerned with what was happening behind them in the table rather than ahead.
They were a shambles, and the addition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – seen as an erratic, blinkered, short-termist signing designed simply as a publicity stunt – did little to assuage the doubts surrounding a club in free-fall.
Six goals in 13 appearances might seem a modest total for one of the best pure strikers of a generation, but the leadership, character, and undeniable quality possessed by Zlatan has helped forge a almighty turnaround. A once fragile, featherweight side who lost seven of their first 12 games have lost just two in the 14 since he signed on for his second spell.
The Milan team of late 2019 would have looked on to games against title-challenging Lazio and Juventus with a wince. The current side, spearheaded by Zlatan, have just beaten both in succession, most recently coming back from two goals down to dismiss the champions elect by four goals to two.
Lazio were beaten 3-0, thanks to a first-half Ibrahimovic masterclass.
Milan’s neckbreaking turnaround has fired them right back into European contention, and a group of players who once looked fragmented and incohesive now look tight-knit and capable of beating anyone in Italy.
Bound together by the January arrivals of Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer, who have emerged as the leaders in a squad desperately bereft of direction, the ship has been steadied. But after a period of relatively smooth sailing, rocky waters lie ahead.
Despite his admirable performance, Pioli looks set to be waved away by the club this summer. The Italian has brought stability and laid the groundwork for success to such an extent that there have even been murmurs of a 2020/21 title challenge, but with Ralf Rangnick set to take over as both manager and director of football, it’s a job Pioli looks as if he will not get to finish.
Rangnick will bring with him new ideas and, as much as the current group has found an unconventional rhythm, the makeover will surely be an extensive one. The top performers will be kept if at all possible, but the supporting cast who have proved ineffective; Andrea Conti, Lucas Biglia, Leo Duarte, Mateo Musacchio, Rade Krunic, Samuel Castilejo; will simply have to make way to free up space if the German is to improve on Pioli’s stellar work.
One of the most astute coaches in football, however, Rangnick will know that maintaining the spirit of the current group, who have just dismissed Lazio and Juve on a late, unlikely charge towards Europe, will be equally integral if his new era is to hit the ground running.
And that is why keeping Zlatan could be the difference.
“If I had been here from the start, we’d have won the Scudetto,” said Ibrahimovic following the win over Juve, inspiring a laugh and a few kind words from teammate Hakan Calhanoglu.
“He’s a leader,” the Turkey international said. “He is a big player, with a big character. He may be old, but he feels young on the pitch.
“Zlatan always talks about (being a) lion, but he is one in the way he trains and plays. He wants to win every time, even in training. He gets so angry when he loses…his passion is incredible, his mentality is so strong.
“This is what we get from him, every player is running harder and fighting for the team. Even when he is off the pitch during games, he would help and guide us.”
Ibrahimovic’s impact has extended far beyond his contributions on the pitch. He has been a motivational force of nature, raising the game of a floundering team and turning them into one that is feared. He’s a defining part of the current group’s DNA, and with so many players set to come and go, he has the potential to act as the link between the magic formula we’re seeing now and the polished, rebuilt group we’ll see next season.
If Rangnick has any sense – which we know he does – then extending Zlatan’s stay, even for a single year to tide things over, will be one of his first orders of business.