When AC Milan and Inter meet this weekend in the Derby della Madonnina one side will have Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the other will have a sustainable plan for contending in Serie A.
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic turned up at Milanello, AC Milan’s historic training base situated between the city itself and Lake Como, for the first time in eight years, his mind must have flashed back to better times for the Rossoneri. After all, the Swedish striker left Italy in 2012 as the country’s top scorer, scoring 28 times in just 32 matches the season after winning the Scudetto.
The club Ibrahimovic returned to last month is very different to the one he left.
Milanello, with its charming pinewood and lake, might be the same, but AC Milan are now a shell of a team and an organization. The signing of Ibrahimovic might have offered something of a sentimental throwback, but it also underlined just how far the San Siro outfit have fallen.
At 38, the former Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain striker is well into the twilight of his career. Indeed, Ibrahimovic is nowhere near as mobile as he once was. The old instincts remain, illustrated by his scoring record of 31 goals in 31 games for the LA Galaxy last season, but that AC Milan are relying on a close-to-retirement center forward to turn around their fortunes reeks of desperation.
They needed something. The 5-0 thumping at the hands of Atalanta on December 22 represented a new nadir for the Rossoneri, quite the feat given their struggles of recent times. It was AC Milan’s heaviest Serie A defeat for 21 years, dropping them into the bottom half of the table for Christmas.
“This cannot be the real Milan,” manager Stefano Pioli bemoaned with the S.O.S sent out to Ibrahimovic soon afterwards. The Swede’s impact was immediate, scoring on his first start against Cagliari, also finding the net in the Coppa Italia win over Torino, but the striker has at times looked every one of his 38 years.
“We’ll see the real Ibrahimovic after a few games,” Pioli insisted a particularly languid display by the Swede. “He wants to prove that he is still up to the challenge, working like this he will certainly do well for everyone. He hadn’t played for a while but he is very helpful and positive to his teammates. He can’t do anything but improve.”
AC Milan’s troubles and desperation in turning to Ibrahimovic is only further underlined by Inter’s turnaround this season. This weekend will see the two Milanese rivals face each other with one side challenging for their first Scudetto in a decade and the other merely scrambling for a place in the top eight.
Indeed, Inter’s recovery has set a precedent for the club they share San Siro with.
In Antonio Conte, they hired arguably Italian football’s best coach and assembled a team to his specifications. Players like Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez are thriving and while signings like Victor Moses, Alexis Sanchez and Ashley Young might have been made with the immediate term in mind, they fit into an overarching plan.
Even if Inter miss out on the title this season they now have the infrastructure, transfer policy and backing to keep challenging at the top of Serie A. There has been a progression from clawing their way back into the Champions League under Luciano Spalletti to where they are right now, just three points off Juventus’ pace.
There is no such vision at AC Milan and Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina could hammer that home.
No elite level club has fallen as hard on tough times as the Rossoneri have over the past eight years or so. Rather than being a symbol of Italian soccer excellence, something the club’s whole identity is based on, they now serve as a cautionary tale. Complacency, corruption and shortsightedness can fell even the greatest of giants. Ibrahimovic’s return has done very little to mask this.