Zlatan Ibrahimovic must miss Milan's trip to Crotone on Sunday but his absence could be a blessing in disguise, according to coach Stefano Pioli.

Sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19, the Swedish striker whose arrival at the start of the year triggered an upturn in Milan's fortunes must stay away from his Rossoneri team-mates for now.

Pioli has challenged the rest of his squad to show they can achieve positive results without the 38-year-old talisman.

And if they succeed, Pioli believes Ibrahimovic's current unavailability may show Milan in a new light, as a group who are not excessively reliant on the former Inter, Juventus and Barcelona frontman.

"I've spoken to Zlatan. He's fit and firing," Pioli said in a news conference on Saturday.

"He's training at home. He's very motivated. He's in touch with his team-mates.

"Clearly his absence will be significant and we will feel it, but we need to make sure this is an opportunity to show our progress.

"We need to show that we can still get results, so when Zlatan comes back he can rediscover an even stronger side than the one he left behind."

Crotone, promoted from Serie B, will be Milan's opponents. They are coached by a former Milan player in Giovanni Stroppa.

The newcomers were thumped 4-1 by Genoa on their return to the top flight last weekend, but will hope to fare better this time out at their Stadio Ezio Scida home.

Pioli saw his Milan side - without Ibrahimovic - given a stiff test by Bodo/Glimt in Europa League qualifying on Thursday, eventually securing a 3-2 win on the back of Hakan Calhanoglu's double.

Ante Rebic could take up a central striking role this weekend rather than occupying a station on the left, with Pioli predicting he could do "a good job" in the position usually occupied by Ibrahimovic.

Now unbeaten in 16 games, talk is turning to whether Milan are possible title contenders, but Pioli is cautious on that front.

He said: "We need to keep improving, we need to keep progressing, because we've proven we have a lot of quality and ability but we've highlighted some areas where we've made some mistakes.

"There are still some areas where we are less clear-minded than we need to be when it comes to decision-making.

"We need to be more compact, more focused and more aggressive, so there are a whole host of different situations we can improve upon.

"That is part of the developmental process. When you get to the highest level you can always try and do something more, go that extra mile."

Jadon Sancho has been tipped to swap Borussia Dortmund for Manchester United, but he remains in Germany.

Sancho's valuation has proved a stumbling block for United, who have made the England international their number one transfer target.

United, though, are not giving up hope as they reportedly make one last attempt to sign the 20-year-old.

 

TOP STORY – UNITED SET FOR FINAL SANCHO OFFER

Manchester United will make a take-it-or-leave-it offer for Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho, according to the Daily Star and the Mirror.

United have so far been unable to prise Sancho from Dortmund, who refuse to budge on their €120million (£108m) asking price.

But United are preparing a final and non-negotiable £90m (€98m) offer, with £75m (€82m) up front with an additional £15m (€16m) in add-ons.

 

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- AS reports Real Madrid face competition for Rennes teenager Eduardo Camavinga. Eyeing a move for Camavinga in 2021, Madrid are set to face a battle from Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich.

Kylian Mbappe could be available for around €100m, says L'Equipe. The PSG star, who is reportedly seeking an exit, is wanted by Madrid and Liverpool.

- The Sun claims Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga is set to leave Stamford Bridge on loan following Edouard Mendy's arrival.

- Madrid forward Borja Mayoral has agreed to join Serie A side Roma, reports DiMarzio.

- Alfredo Pedulla says Juventus are weighing up a €60m move for Fiorentina star Federico Chiesa, who has also been linked to Milan.

- If Milan Skriniar leaves for Tottenham, DiMarzio claims Inter could target Schalke star and Liverpool target Ozan Kabak.

- According to Marca, Barcelona are making a late push to sign long-time target and Inter forward Lautaro Martinez following Luis Suarez's switch to Atletico Madrid.

Barca are confident they will sign Ajax full-back Sergino Dest ahead of Bayern, says Fabrizio Romano.

- Romano also reports that Atletico will not negotiate with Arsenal regarding Thomas Partey as they believe he will stay in the Spanish capital.

Bayern Munich or Barcelona?

Two of the world's biggest clubs are going head-to-head for Ajax sensation Sergino Dest.

And the club from LaLiga are reportedly favourites to land the teenager.

 

TOP STORY – DEST WANTS BARCA

Ajax full-back Sergino Dest has pushed aside an offer from Bundesliga and Champions League holders Bayern Munich as he looks to join Barcelona, according to Sport.

Bayern and LaLiga giants Barca are both interested in the 19-year-old United States international.

But Dest has his heart set on Barca, where a principle agreement is reportedly in place between the player and Ajax.

 

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Tottenham and Inter are in talks regarding centre-back Milan Skriniar, reports Sky Sport Italia. Skriniar is wanted by Jose Mourinho's Spurs but the Premier League club are unwilling to match Inter's £55million (€60m) valuation. Benfica's Ruben Dias remains a serious alternative.

- Diario AS claims Real Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez is wanted by Serie A trio Napoli, Roma and Milan.

- The same outlet also reports that Manchester United and Arsenal are two possible destinations for out-of-favour Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti. Former club Lyon, Rennes and Inter have also been linked.

Aston Villa are eyeing Chelsea midfielder Ross Barkley on loan, according to the Telegraph. Barkley is down the pecking order at Stamford Bridge.

- Kicker says Barca and Roma have joined Paris Saint-Germain in looking at Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger, who looks set to leave London.

Manchester City are still pursuing Atletico Madrid's Jose Gimenez, says the Daily Star. An alternative to Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly, City's interest in Gimenez could be scuppered as the Uruguay international isolates and recovers from coronavirus.

- Despite already signing Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi, Le10 Sport claims David Beckham's Inter Miami remain keen on free agent Edinson Cavani. However, the former PSG forward is still hoping to remain in Europe.

Milan will do their all to agree a new contract with Gianluigi Donnarumma but are in no rush to do so, according to technical director Paolo Maldini.

Donnarumma made his debut for Milan as a 16-year-old in 2015-16 and has already appeared more than 200 times, but his current deal is due to expire next year..

The Italian side revealed last month talks are ongoing with the young goalkeeper over extending his stay at San Siro beyond the end of this season.

Maldini has hailed the growing influence of Donnarumma on the field and is hopeful the contract saga will soon come to an end.

"Gigio is becoming more and more of a leader and is growing game after game," Maldini told Sky Sport Italia. "He is just 21 but already has over 200 appearances for Milan.

"This is why it is a duty to try to close the renewal When will that happen? Let's see, there is no rush. Ten or 15 more days will certainly not change anything."

Milan managed to finalise a new deal for Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the end of last month, tying the veteran striker down for an additional season.

And Maldini has hailed the impact made by the ex-Sweden international, who has scored 14 goals in 22 appearances since returning to Milan on a free transfer in January.

"The first positive things of last season came after the winter break when Zlatan arrived," he said. 

"His presence was essential to give energy to his team-mates. They were the youngest team in the league and this year they have grown even more. 

"The matches for him are like Champions League finals. He is like a champion [in how he] behaves. 

"He is not the only one I have seen in my career, I was like that too. It's an innate competitiveness that makes him a champion."

First Juventus, now Atletico Madrid.

For so long, Luis Suarez appeared set to leave Spain for Italy.

But a proposed move to Juve did not materialise as the Barcelona forward stands on the cusp of uniting with Diego Simeone in the Spanish capital.

 

TOP STORY – SUAREZ TO JOIN ATLETICO

Luis Suarez will swap Barcelona for LaLiga rivals Atletico Madrid, according to widespread reports in Spain.

Suarez had been tipped to join Serie A champions Juventus after being told he could leave Camp Nou.

But the 33-year-old Uruguay international forward will now sign a two-year deal with Atletico as he dominates the front pages of Wednesday's Marca, Diario AS and Mundo Deportivo.

 

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Manchester United have progressed talks with Barca regarding forward Ousmane Dembele, Record Sport reports. Having so far failed to prise Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, United are eyeing an initial loan move for Dembele.

- Esport3 claims Barca are set to sign Ajax right-back Sergino Dest, who was also wanted by Bayern Munich.

Milan have offered €20million for Nikola Milenkovic but Fiorentina have said no, reports Gazzetta dello Sport. Celtic's Kristoffer Ajer and Schalke centre-back Matija Nastasic are also options for the Rossoneri.

- Tuttosport claims Wolves are circling Juventus winger Douglas Costa, who has also been linked to United.

Fulham and Newcastle United have entered the race to sign Napoli forward Arkadiusz Milik, reports Gazzetta dello Sport. Tottenham have also been linked to the Poland international, while Roma are believed to be in talks as Milik enters the final year of his Napoli contract.

- Sky Sport Italia says Tottenham have opened talks for Inter defender Milan Skriniar, while Benfica's Ruben Dias is another option for Spurs.

- Torino are battling Atletico for Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira, according to Sportitalia. The former Sampdoria star has also been linked to Milan.

- Telefoot says Paris Saint-Germain are in talks with Chelsea over the possible signing of midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko. Discussions with Milan over a return have become complicated and PSG are now eyeing an initial loan deal for the former Monaco star.

Stefano Pioli praised Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his brace against Bologna and said the forward could star when Milan are at their best.

Ibrahimovic, 38, scored a brace as Milan started their Serie A season with a 2-0 victory at San Siro, where Bologna's Mitchell Dijks was sent off late on Monday.

Pioli lauded the forward, but said Ibrahimovic could only shine if Milan were functioning well.

"When the team works, the individuals are exalted and we have great individuality, then Zlatan is a champion and confirms it every time," the Milan coach told Sky Sport.

"The team has confidence, he knows how to play even in difficulties. He knows how to sacrifice himself.

"Then the technical qualities are there and I'm happy that we are able to exploit them."

Milan battled to a sixth-place finish in Serie A last season and are preparing to face Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt in the Europa League third qualifying round on Thursday.

Pioli hopes his team can improve on that finish, saying: "We have to be ambitious.

"Our goal is to continue to grow and improve the position of the last championship.

"We want to return to Europe, we have a difficult preliminary and then we will prepare the championship at its best."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic joked he is like Benjamin Button after he got his Serie A season started with a double in Milan's 2-0 victory over Bologna.

Ibrahimovic scored a superb header and a fantastic penalty to secure a winning start for Milan, and take his tally of goals for the season to three from two games in all competitions.

The 38-year-old went close to netting a perfect hat-trick with a left-footed effort from a tight angle, though had to settle for a brace which took his total of goal involvements in opening-day fixtures across Europe's top five leagues to 16 in as many appearances.

In typical Ibrahimovic fashion, the former Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United star boasted he would have scored more if he was younger, comparing himself to Benjamin Button, the fictional creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald who ages backwards.

"I am in good shape, I am working, this is the second competitive game of the season," Ibrahimovic told Sky Italia.

"We won and I could've scored more. If I was 20 years old, I'd have scored another two. I am not old, I am like Benjamin Button, I start old and die young!

"Kidding aside, the team worked well, we are not at 100 per cent and therefore made some mistakes we usually avoid, but it bodes well.

"I like having responsibility. The biggest pressure is what I put on myself. I don't want people to talk about my age, I want to be treated at the same level as everyone else. It doesn’t matter if I am 38, I want to be treated like someone aged 20 and do the same work."

Ibrahimovic scored 10 Serie A goals after re-joining Milan in January last season, helping Stefano Pioli's side secure European football, and he said the Rossoneri's target for this campaign is simple.

"The objective is to do better than last season," he added. "The young players are working hard, they listen, they have discipline and after the last six months know what they need to do in order to do well, stay concentrated every day.

"This year, we have to take it one game at a time, play with confidence and treat every match like a cup final."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice as Milan started their Serie A campaign with a convincing 2-0 victory over Bologna, who ended Monday's clash at San Siro with 10 men.

Having finished 2019-20 in excellent form, Milan picked up where they left off with Ibrahimovic's double securing their first opening-day win since 2017-18.

The 38-year-old netted in the Europa League against Shamrock Rovers on Thursday and broke the deadlock with an excellent header 35 minutes in.

His second came from the spot six minutes into the second half after Riccardo Orsolini fell foul of VAR and Bologna finished the game with 10 men after Mitchell Dijks saw red in the 88th minute.

Milan played themselves into trouble inside the opening two minutes and were fortunate Roberto Soriano's effort was deflected wide.

Ibrahimovic was inches away from getting off the mark 10 minutes later, before the veteran set up a great chance that Ismael Bennacer blazed over from close range.

Yet Ibrahimovic made no mistake with the next opportunity, directing a brilliant header into the bottom-right corner from Theo Hernandez's cross.

Half-time substitute Alexis Saelemaekers made an immediate impact as he teed up Ibrahimovic, but Lukasz Skorupski made a solid save.

Milan were quickly handed a chance for their second, though, when VAR spotted Orsolini's foul on Bennacer, which had been given as a free-kick, actually took place in the box and Ibrahimovic slammed the penalty high into the right corner.

A perfect hat-trick looked a certainty when Ibrahimovic rounded Skorupski, but the Swede sliced his effort over.

Milan settled for the two-goal cushion and Bologna's frustration was compounded when Dijks received a second booking for a foul on Saelemaekers.


What does it mean? Milan back among the big guns

It has been a difficult string of seasons for Milan but, under Stefano Pioli, they finally look to have rediscovered their verve. With Atalanta (47) not in action until Saturday due to their Champions League exploits at the end of the last term, the Rossoneri – on a 13-match unbeaten run in the top flight – have picked up more points (48) than any other Serie A side in 2020.

Ibrahimovic's opening-day run rolls on

In opening games of a season within the top five European leagues, Ibrahimovic has now been involved in 16 goals in as many appearances, scoring 12 times and providing four assists.

Leaky defence leaves Bologna in bother

After Monday's defeat, Bologna have not kept a clean sheet in any of their past 34 Serie A matches - the longest such run for any team in the competition's history.

What's next?

Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt are Milan's opponents in a Europa League qualifier on Thursday, while Bologna face Parma in Serie A in seven days.

Will Manchester City finally land Kalidou Koulibaly?

Pep Guardiola's City want defensive reinforcements and Napoli centre-back Koulibaly is reportedly at the top of the list.

If they are unsuccessful, Sevilla's Jules Kounde is next on the list.

 

TOP STORY – CITY NOT GIVING UP KOULIBALY

Manchester City are still in talks with Napoli to sign star defender Kalidou Koulibaly, according to journalist Fabrizio Romano.

City have been tipped to sign Koulibaly, who has also been linked to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain.

However, City are yet to reach an agreement with Napoli and Sevilla's Jules Kounde is the "backup option" but a bid has already been turned down.

 

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- Romano says Wolves will complete the signing of Barcelona full-back Nelson Semedo on Monday. It comes as Barca eye Ajax defender Sergino Dest or Real Betis' Emerson to replace Semedo. Norwich City's Max Aarons has also been linked.

Milan have made Fiorentina's Nikola Milenkovic their number one defensive target ahead of Celtic centre-back Kristoffer Ajer, reports the Daily Record.

- Calciomercato claims Juventus are eyeing Real Madrid full-back Marcelo. The Brazilian has been repeatedly linked with a Cristiano Ronaldo reunion in Turin.

- The Telegraph says PSG are interested in Tottenham's Dele Alli. Out of favour under Jose Mourinho, Spurs are reportedly targeting Manchester United's Jesse Lingard as a replacement.

Roma remain interested in Napoli's Arkadiusz Milik but Madrid outcast Luka Jovic has emerged as 'Plan B', according to Calciomercato.

Leeds United are out of the race to sign Dinamo Zagreb sensation Josko Gvardiol, reports Romano. Wanted by Marcelo Bielsa, the Croatian teenager is now set for Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig.

Stefano Pioli has challenged Milan to hit the ground running at the start of the new Serie A season as they aim for a top-four finish.

The Rossoneri finished the 2019-20 campaign impressively, producing a 12-game unbeaten run in the league to rise up to sixth spot, enough to secure Europa League qualification.

Their fine form during the run-in also led to a new contract for Pioli, who acknowledges there will now be added pressure this term.

While a title tilt may be a tall order, the Milan boss revealed his determination to avoid losing ground on their main rivals ahead of Monday's opening fixture against Bologna.

"If we want to finish in the top four, we need to start well," Pioli told the media. "We can't be chasing the whole time.

"Starting with a win is vital, which is why we're focusing on tomorrow's match. The Scudetto? I don't know. It's difficult to give a response at this time."

Milan, who last ended a season in the top four in 2012-13, have added Brahim Diaz and Sandro Tonali to their squad, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has also signed a new contract to remain at San Siro.

Asked about the rise in expectations following such a strong finish to the previous campaign, Pioli replied: "Being under pressure is a privilege, it means that we've reached a high standard.

"Our objective is to improve on our position last year - we need to be ambitious, we're AC Milan."

Pioli saw his side triumph 2-0 in a Europa League qualifying tie against Shamrock Rovers in midweek, Hakan Calhanoglu playing a starring role.

The Turkey international scored his team's second goal and has built up a strong partnership with Ibrahimovic, who was also on target.

"Calhanoglu is someone who knows how to play on the pitch," Pioli said. "He's developed an important understanding with Ibra, they know how to attack the lines and the space in behind.

"Calhanoglu has lots of quality and is also a selfless player. He has all the cards at his disposal to do well and continue to be a point of reference."

Sandro Tonali says he "closed all other doors" when his childhood team Milan made it clear they wanted to sign him. 

Milan announced the signing of the Italy international on loan with an option to buy for a reported €35million last week after three impressive seasons with Brescia.

Tonali, compared to Italian great Andrea Pirlo, had been tipped to join city rivals Inter, but he says the opportunity to join the Rossoneri was too good to turn down. 

"More or less everyone supports Milan where I'm from, including my father, who passed that passion onto me as a kid," he told a media conference. 

"I've wanted to wear this jersey for a while. I didn't speak much to Massimo Cellino [Brescia president], but he realised straight away what it meant to me. He said he'd let me make my choice and he kept his word.

"I asked him to make this effort for me and he was super about it. When I realised there was this opportunity to join Milan, I closed all the other doors. I had to go to Milan. I had to.

"My agent did most of the negotiating with Inter, so he quite rightly left me out of it so I wouldn't get distracted. As soon as I heard about Milan, and he knew that I supported them, we talked and I let him get to work."

A technically gifted midfielder renowned for his dribbling and passing abilities, Tonali scored once and registered seven assists for Brescia as they were relegated from Serie A in 2019-20.

He could make his debut in Thursday's Europa League qualifying clash against Shamrock Rovers, potentially lining up alongside one of his idols, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

"We can't wait, we want to just go out there and play," he added. "It's a very high level of quality in this squad and all the team-mates – starting with Ibrahimovic – pass on that desire to win. We want to prove on the pitch what we can do.

"Ibra is another idol, someone I already admired the first time he played for Milan. He manages to just put the team on his shoulders and carry them to victory. He's a man to be taken as an example."

Ante Rebic says Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the only on-field leader Milan need as he hailed the veteran striker's impact since returning to the club in January.

Ibrahimovic, 38, scored 11 goals in 20 appearances for Milan after joining on a free transfer at the turn of the year and signed a one-year extension last month.

The ex-Sweden international helped to revive the Rossoneri's flagging campaign, with Rebic among those to step up in a strong end to 2019-20 that ended with a 13-game unbeaten run.

Rebic has earned praise for his leadership qualities but insists Ibrahimovic is head coach Stefano Pioli's commander-in-chief on the pitch.

"Zlatan is a great player - he helps the team and has a major effect on everyone," he told Milan TV.

"It's always a pleasure to play with him, but I just focus on my own work and to do well in my role. I hope to do even better.

"We have one leader on the bench, the coach, and another on the pitch, Zlatan. For now we don't need other [leaders]."

Rebic turned his loan from Eintracht Frankfurt into a permanent move on Saturday after finishing 2019-20 as Milan's top scorer with 12 goals in 30 appearances.

And the Croatia international is now looking to better that tally in his second season at San Siro.

"I'm very happy to have signed for Milan," he said. "I'm happy I was able to prove I have the quality to play here.

"When I first arrived last season, I said I wasn't a striker, that I help the team in other ways. Then I scored 12 goals - I hope I can score more this season."

Ante Rebic has completed a permanent move to Milan from Eintracht Frankfurt, signing a five-year contract.

The Croatia international impressed on loan with the Rossoneri last season, scoring 12 goals in 30 appearances to finish as their top goalscorer.

Excluding penalties, only Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo (12) has scored more goals in Serie A in 2020 than Rebic (11).

With Andre Silva having secured a permanent switch to Frankfurt for a reported €9million, Milan are said to have signed Rebic for effectively no transfer fee.

The 26-year-old made 100 competitive appearances for Eintracht, scoring 25 goals and providing 12 assists, before moving to Milan on an initial two-year loan last September.

Sporting director Fredi Bobic said via the club's website: "Our fans will always remember Ante, not only because of his outstanding performance in the 2018 DFB-Pokal final [when he was man of the match in a 3-1 win over Bayern Munich].

"We wish Ante all the best for the future. He will always be a welcome guest in Frankfurt."

Milan have completed the signing of experienced Lyon goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu on a deal until June 2023.

Ligue 1 side Lyon confirmed on Friday a transfer between the clubs was agreed, with Milan announcing the move had been sewn up a day later.

The 34-year-old returns to Serie A having previously spent three years at Fiorentina between 2014 and 2017, before moving to France with Nantes.

Tatarusanu made the switch to Lyon in June 2019 and provided back-up to first choice Anthony Lopes, with the Romania international now set to provide cover for Gianluigi Donnarumma at San Siro.

Milan did not confirm a fee, but reports suggest the Rossoneri have agreed to pay €500,000.

Former Milan midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura has joined Fiorentina.

The 31-year-old Italy international has secured what is reported to be a two-year contract with the Viola.

Bonaventura made over 180 appearances for the Rossoneri and scored 35 goals after joining from Atalanta in 2014.

The player, who has 14 senior caps for Italy, left Stefano Pioli's side at the end of 2019-20 after his contract expired.

Fiorentina also confirmed Riccardo Sottil will spend the 2020-21 season on loan with Cagliari, who have the option to make the move permanent.

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