Ibrahimovic still 'the benchmark for everyone' as Pioli relishes return of Zlatan

By Sports Desk August 22, 2021

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is poised to give Milan a huge early-season lift by roaring back into action.

The extroverted striker is just weeks away from returning to full team training after the knee injury that forced him to miss Sweden's Euro 2020 campaign.

Head coach Stefano Pioli knows a fit Ibrahimovic can transform his team, as was proven when he scored 15 goals in his first 15 Serie A games of last season.

He netted at one goal every 79.47 minutes during that run, and even though his scoring then dried up, the veteran remains a talisman with the Rossoneri.

Asked about Ibrahimovic's condition, Pioli said in a news conference on Sunday: "Physically, he is certainly looking better, even though he's not begun full training with the team and he's forcing things a little bit.

"Next week will be very important for him because he needs to start ball work and that's what he's been missing.

"So we'll see next week whether he's able to actually train with us, and during the international break he might be able to be fit and available.

"I think his role is always the same: Zlatan is a charismatic leader in terms of his character. He's a leader on the pitch as well, he really is the benchmark for everyone.

"He's a significant figure. He's very motivated."

 

Ibrahimovic stands eighth on the list of top scorers across all competitions over the past 10 seasons, among players competing in Europe's top five leagues.

That is all the more impressive given his goals across two seasons with LA Galaxy are not counted in his total of 247 strikes, and Pioli will know Milan carried a unique threat when Ibrahimovic was on hand last term.

They won 66.7 per cent of games where he started (12 of 18) and that dipped slightly to 60 per cent when Ibrahimovic was not in Pioli's XI.

Milan begin their 2021-22 season against Sampdoria on Monday, then face Cagliari next weekend, and those may be the only games Ibrahimovic has to miss, if Pioli's fitness forecast proves accurate.

"He's fit and firing mentally," Pioli said of the player who turns 40 in October.

"He's a player that can still be a matchwinner for the team, for himself. So he's very motivated and can't wait to get back into full training with his team-mates.

"The same goes for me: I can't wait to get him back on the training ground."

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