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Old Man Zlatan Is At The Center Of AC Milan’s Revival

Zlatan Ibrahimovic of A.C. Milan celebrates after scoring their team's first goal during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and AC Milan at Stadio San Paolo on November 22, 2020 in Naples, Italy.
Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

It’s never been safe to bet against Zlatan Ibrahimović, but even the most ardent of the big Swede’s believers couldn’t have seen this coming. Since moving from the LA Galaxy to Italy’s AC Milan in January, the 39-year-old striker has been the engine behind the Rossoneri‘s climb back to the summit of Serie A. With each passing week, Milan’s Zlatan-fueled ascent looks less like a fluke and more like the emergence of a true title contender.

Ibrahimović once again demonstrated his enduring greatness on Sunday, blasting in two goals in Milan’s 3–1 victory over Napoli. Milan is now two points clear of fellow unbeaten surprise, Sassuolo, through eight games of the Serie A season, and Zlatan is as big a reason as any for that success. Though he missed two games after testing positive for COVID-19 in September, and though he will likely miss at least a couple more after picking up a leg injury late in Sunday’s game, Ibrahimović still leads all scorers in Serie A with 10 goals in just six games.

His first goal against Napoli was classic Zlatan. After a wonderfully curled cross from left back Theo Hernández, Ibrahimović towered over Kalidou Koulibaly—no easy feat—to rocket a header into the far lower corner, where goalie Alex Meret could do nothing to stop it:

His second came from another great cross, this time by winger Ante Rebić, which Zlatan poked in with his knee, doubling Milan’s lead:

More impressive than the finishes, though, is how Ibrahimović is still able to get into such great scoring locations at his advanced age. His pace is completely gone, but he’s still athletic enough to out-leap a six-foot-five center back on the first goal, and crafty enough to get between Koulibaly and left back Mário Rui and into position for Rebić’s cross on the second. He also still has a knack for scoring goals when his side needs them. Aside from the brace against Napoli, Zlatan also scored a brace against Inter in a 2–1 win, two goals against Roma in a wild 3–3 draw, and a 92nd minute equalizer against Hellas Verona earlier this month to keep Milan unbeaten.

It’s not only the Ibra Show on the red-and-black side of the San Siro, though. Head coach Stefano Pioli deserves as much credit as Zlatan for the Milanese resurgence, and his trust in young players like Hernández, winger and team assists leader Rafael Leão, and midfielder Franck Kessié has allowed Ibra to focus strictly on the penalty box. And Ibrahimović is producing, shooting an astounding 5.8 shots per game.

With Ibrahimović set to miss time after reportedly tearing a muscle in his leg on Sunday, Milan will struggle to compensate for that production. No Rossonero aside from Zlatan has more than two goals in domestic play so far this season, and the club doesn’t really have a strong backup for the Swedish legend in the No. 9 position. Rebić and Leão might be decent stopgaps there, but if Zlatan’s injury keeps him out for more than a couple weeks, Milan could lose this table-topping momentum.

If, however, he does come back soon, surely with some form of Zlatanesque quip about how age means nothing to a god or something similar, then Milan can get right back to how it has started this season: defensively solid, tactically mobile, and overwhelmingly Zlatan in the attack. Milan probably isn’t the favorite to lift its first scudetto since Ibra’s last stint with the club back in 2011, but in light of what the team’s aging talisman has been and is still somehow capable of, you wouldn’t want to bet against it, either.