Raphael Varane called on France to rediscover their World Cup-winning form as they prepare to face Belgium in the Nations League semi-final.

Varane won the World Cup in 2018 with Les Bleus but was also part of the disappointment of Euro 2020, which saw France eliminated at the last-16 stage by Switzerland.

France's form in 2021 includes a run of five consecutive draws across all competitions, the first time Les Bleus have gone on such a streak, up until the 2-0 win over Finland in their last outing.

Didier Deschamps' side have however remained unbeaten in their first six matches of World Cup 2022 qualification – the first time they have achieved the feat in qualifying matches for a major tournament since 2006.

And Varane implored his country to use the triumph over Finland as a confidence booster for the upcoming Nations League clash, with the winner facing either Spain or Italy in the final.

"We finished the last game very well," Manchester United centre-back Varane told reporters at Tuesday's pre-match news conference.

"We needed it to revive a dynamic, to regain that confidence. When we chained draws together, there could have been less confidence, but these are the hazards of high-level football.

"We must build on this to continue to maintain this positive dynamic and gain new momentum, with greater success.

"There are all the qualities in this group. It's up to us to succeed in triggering this confidence and success which has enabled us to be world champions.

"We know that it takes this energy, this little madness sometimes in the game to create it."

Varane is joined in the France camp by the Hernandez brothers, Lucas and Theo, who could feature in defence together against Belgium.

The pair, who appeared at the news conference in tandem, assured that whoever starts will give their all to ensure that their team are in the final on Sunday.

"We are brothers but on the field, we are partners," Lucas Hernandez said.

"The most important thing is that everyone wants to win. These are special moments.

"When the matches start, we don't know who will start, but we will be united, we will give each other advice. We're all going to pull in the same direction."

Theo Hernandez echoed his brother's sentiments, adding: "We will help each other. It doesn't matter if it's me or Lucas playing. The other will be there to help him at all times."

Anthony Martial has reportedly been permitted to explore his options by Manchester United.

Martial has fallen down the pecking order at Old Trafford since Cristiano Ronaldo's return.

France international Martial scored four league goals for United last term, after netting 17 times in the 2019-20 Premier League campaign.

 

TOP STORY – DORTMUND PLOTS MARTIAL MOVE

Borussia Dortmund are bracing for Erling Haaland's departure by plotting a move for Manchester United forward Anthony Martial, claims 90Min.

Haaland, who has a release clause in his contract that activates in mid-2022, is being chased by a host of top clubs, including Premier League champions Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, Liverpool and United.

Martial is still contracted to the Red Devils until 2024, having penned a five-year deal in January 2019, amid reported interest from Barca, Tottenham and Arsenal.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Transfer Window podcast claims City owner Sheikh Mansour wants to hijack Madrid's bid for PSG star Kylian Mbappe and sign him "at any cost". Mbappe has also been linked with United and Liverpool.

- Barcelona are looking at Reims' Spanish head coach Oscar Garcia as a replacement for under-pressure boss Ronald Koeman, per RMC Sport.

- Madrid midfielder Isco has held numerous rounds of negotiations with Serie A challengers Milan about a move to Italy, according to Todo Fichajes.

Barca are considering a move for Porto's Colombia international forward Luis Diaz next off-season, claims El Nacional.

- Diario AS says Theo Hernandez is ready to commit his long-term future to Milan amid interest from PSG and City.

Theo Hernandez declared Milan are focused on going one better than last year as they bid to become Serie A champions for the first time in 11 years.

French left-back Hernandez was a driving force behind Milan's latest win, coming off the bench to set up Brahim Diaz's opener against Venezia before scoring the second himself in a 2-0 victory.

Milan were not at their best on Wednesday evening, but coach Stefano Pioli's team have four wins and a draw from their opening five Serie A games, and such form is a temptation to start looking further down the line.

Hernandez, who was afforded a break from the starting XI after a hectic start to his campaign, became the first Milan player to score and assist as a substitute in Serie A since Maxi Lopez pulled off the feat against Udinese in February 2012.

He has become a key figure for the Rossoneri, who started last season at breakneck pace too, but faded in the closing months as San Siro rivals Inter scooped the Scudetto, Milan finishing in second place.

Speaking about the Venezia game, Hernandez said: "We knew it was an important match and that it would not be easy, we've come from a series of very tough matches.

"Pioli gave me some rest, I went on trying to do my best. We work every day to improve, it is a season in which we are better."

Quoted widely in the Italian media, Hernandez said: "We have to win these games, all of them. A place in the Champions League? No, something more: we have to play to win the Scudetto."

Milan fielded the youngest starting XI in a Serie A match this season (24 years and 166 days), with Pioli shaking things up to good effect just before the hour mark by introducing Hernandez, Alexis Saelemaekers and Fikayo Tomori.

By that stage, Milan had not had a shot on target, and that remained the case until Diaz put them in front after 68 minutes.

Hernandez became the first Milan defender to both score and assist in a Serie A fixture since the 2004-05 season, the furthest point back at which Opta has collated such data.

Pioli does not mind talk of titles but warned they will not come easily, with the coach saying: "We have to ride this enthusiasm and empathy we have created with our fans.

"Everyone has the desire to win; the difference is made by those who prepare themselves best to win.

"If my players think they can win the Scudetto then let them make an enormous effort, this is the only way to win."

Real Madrid are desperate to bolster their attack.

Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland are both on the list.

But, if their efforts to sign Haaland are unsuccessful, Robert Lewandowski could reportedly be targeted.

 

TOP STORY – LEWANDOWSKI TO MADRID?

Real Madrid will turn to Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski if they are unable to sign Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund, according to Diario AS.

Madrid are reportedly determined to sign in-demand star Haaland, who has also been linked with Manchester City, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Liverpool, Barcelona and Bayern.

But Lewandowski has emerged as an alternative for Madrid should they miss out on Haaland.

Madrid are also eyeing PSG star Kylian Mbappe on a free transfer.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato reports Juventus are considering a move for Barca forward Ousmane Dembele. The France international has been linked with United and Liverpool, while he is yet to agree terms over a new deal at Camp Nou.

City are interested in Milan full-back Theo Hernandez, claims the Manchester Evening News. The Frenchman has flourished at San Siro, also attracting the attention of PSG.

- The Manchester Evening News says United have earmarked West Ham star Declan Rice as their principal midfield target at the end of the season.

The first international break of the 2021-22 campaign has arrived, and with it comes an opportunity for many national teams to start afresh.

Following the conclusion of the Copa America, Gold Cup and Euro 2020 in quick succession, all roads now lead to the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

For a number of players, the September qualifiers provide an opportunity to make an impression, while for others it is potentially a first taste of international football. 

With the games coming thick and fast over the next week or so, Stats Perform has looked at those in contention to make their senior international debuts.

Albert Sambi Lokonga (Belgium)

Belgium's golden generation of talent missed another opportunity to turn promise into something more tangible when losing to eventual winners Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals.

Roberto Martinez has decided against wholesale changes after that disappointment, with Lokonga the only outfield player in line for his first cap, having failed to get further than the bench – against Greece in June – after previous call-ups.

A product of the same Anderlecht youth system that oversaw the development of Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker, among others, Lokonga sealed a move to Arsenal in July after impressing in the Belgian top flight.

The £15million signing has not had the best of starts to life at Arsenal, the Gunners finding themselves bottom of the English top-flight table having played at least three league matches for the first time since October 1974.

Lokonga, noted for his ability to play in front of the defence, featured in just two of those games yet still trails Granit Xhaka alone in terms of passes (113 to 139) and successful passes (97 to 118) and is behind only Sead Kolasinac for interceptions.

 

Claudinho (Brazil)

Citing concerns over the availability of his European-based contingent due to clubs being reluctant to release players to red-list countries, Tite has named a bloated Brazil squad for this month's triple-header of World Cup qualifiers.

Those complications appear set to deny Raphinha a debut, having impressed during his first year in the Premier League with Leeds United. 

Raphinha ranks seventh in the division for dribbles attempted since the start of last season (142), completing 42.96 per cent of those. He also ranks in the top 10 for chances created over that period with 68.

But Claudinho remains in line to be capped for the first time, called up after helping his country secure Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

The midfielder, whose signing at Zenit was announced not long after the Olympic tournament had concluded, described his call-up as "a dream come true".

Theo Hernandez and Moussa Diaby (France)

It is out with the old and in with the new as far as France's first post-Euros squad is concerned – to an extent, at least, with Olivier Giroud one of nine players to make way from the previous group named by Didier Deschamps.

Injuries have also played a part in that, potentially giving a quartet of uncapped players the chance to impress in the upcoming qualifiers with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine and Finland.

Hernandez, a more natural left-back option than brother Lucas, will feel his first call-up is long overdue following back-to-back campaigns as a regular for Milan, whom he joined from Real Madrid. 

Since making his Rossoneri bow in September 2019, no defender in Serie A has completed more dribbles than Hernandez (133), while only Federico Dimarco (87) and Juan Cuadrado (107) have created more chances than his 86.

Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and Roma's Jordan Veretout may also feature during this international break, but perhaps the most exciting of the new additions is Bayer Leverkusen winger Diaby.

The Paris Saint-Germain product scored twice and assisted another in Leverkusen's opening two Bundesliga games of 2021-22, while Alphonso Davies is the only player in the division to have attempted more dribbles this term (24 to his 22).

Known for his blistering pace and ability to take on opponents, Diaby could well provide Deschamps with a different option in an attack already packed full of talent.

 

Otavio (Portugal)

Three new players have been called up by Fernando Santos, who is looking to the future after his Portugal side's reign as European champions came to an end in July.

Goncalo Inacio is injured, but Diogo Costa and Otavio could each make their senior debuts during this international window, with the latter the name on many lips right now.

Otavio has tallied 11 goal involvementss in each of the past two Primeira Liga campaigns for Porto and has made a fast start to the new season with two assists in his first four games.

Since the start of last season, only team-mate Mehdi Taremi has provided more assists (12) in the Portuguese top flight than Otavio's 10, coming from 51 chances created.

The Brazilian-born attacking midfielder was granted Portuguese citizenship earlier this year and will be eager to show that Brazil's loss is very much Portugal's gain should he get some minutes over the next week.

Ricardo Pepi (United States)

The dual-national drama surrounding Pepi appears to have reached a resolution as the FC Dallas forward has seemingly pledged his allegiance to the United States over Mexico.

After breaking into the Dallas side two years ago and featuring regularly last year, 2021 has been quite the season for the El Paso-born youngster.

Pepi, who does not turn 19 until next January, has 11 goals and two assists in 21 games this term and scored the decisive kick in last week's penalty shoot-out win for MLS against their Liga MX counterparts in the All-Star Game.

He has 13 MLS goals in total, the fourth-most ever by a teenager – ahead of Freddy Adu – and just nine short of the record held by Diego Fagundez.

On the basis of the past four months in particular, the USMNT could have a potentially world-class player to lead their line for a number of years to come.

 

Karim Adeyemi (Germany)

For the first time in 17 years, Germany will play a match without Joachim Low in their dugout either as assistant or head coach when they face Liechtenstein on Thursday.

Hansi Flick is tasked with ushering in a new generation of German talents, with help from the old guard, many of whom were key to his successful spell at Bayern Munich.

Away from regulars such as Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Manuel Neuer, Flick has included four uncapped players in his first squad – David Raum, Nico Schlotterbeck, Florian Wirtz and Adeyemi.

A technically gifted and supremely fast winger, Adeyemi has long been considered one of Germany's most promising young players, having cost Salzburg a reported €3m when he was 16.

Adeyemi, who left Bayern six years earlier, has been given the chance to spread his wings with Salzburg and has been strongly linked with Red Bull sister club RB Leipzig.

He already has six goals in six Austrian Bundesliga appearances this term, just one less than he managed in 29 top-flight appearances last time out – a return he will be looking to build on if he is given the nod by Flick.

Justin Bijlow (Netherlands)

The Netherlands are another European heavyweight going through a transitional period of sorts after turning to veteran coach Louis van Gaal for a third stint in charge.

Frank de Boer failed to get the most out of this talented Dutch squad and already Van Gaal has put his own mark on the team by calling up a few newbies.

There will be plenty of focus on the goalkeeping position as, with Jasper Cillessen not fully fit and Maarten Stekelenburg recently retiring, Joel Drommel and Bijlow can stake a claim to be the long-term number one.

Bijlow is considered one of the finest young goalkeepers in Europe and already has 45 Eredivisie games under his belt for Feyenoord, where he is a real fan favourite.

The 23-year-old has kept 15 clean sheets across those appearances and boasts a save percentage of 72.16. Van Gaal can seemingly rely on the young stopper, as he has made just one error leading to a goal.

Milan returned to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over Benevento at San Siro that moves them back up to second place in Serie A.

The Rossoneri dropped to fifth following defeats to Sassuolo and Lazio, but they battled to a much-needed win in Saturday's clash with Filippo Inzaghi's struggling Benevento.

Hakan Calhanoglu picked out the bottom-right corner inside six minutes to give Milan the lead and Theo Hernandez added a second from close range with an hour played.

That proved enough as Milan moved a point in front of Atalanta and three ahead of Napoli and Juventus, but all three sides have a game in hand to play on Sunday.

Milan have scored the most goals of any Serie A side in the opening half-hour of games this term, while Benevento have conceded the most, and this contest followed the script.

Calhanoglu exchanged passes with Franck Kessie, played the ball out to Alexis Saelemaekers and got on the end of the return pass to steer a shot past Lorenzo Montipo.

The Benevento keeper did well to save a powerful strike from Rafael Leao soon after and also denied Zlatan Ibrahimovic with his outstretched leg from a one-on-one.

Ibrahimovic was thwarted again by a couple more Montipo saves early in the second half, either side of Iago Falque firing one inches wide at the other end.

However, the next Montipo save on Ibrahimovic paid dividends for Milan as attacking left-back Hernandez was in the right place to turn in the rebound.

Benevento would have moved out of the bottom three with a point, but they could not offer much in response as Milan saw out a deserved victory.

What does it mean? Milan back to winning ways ahead of tough run-in

Stefano Pioli challenged his Milan players to show their fighting spirit on the back of successive losses and they did exactly that with a fairly routine victory on home soil.

This win – just their second in nine home matches in all competitions – moves them into second place and puts pressure on the chasing pack to win their games on Sunday.

With a trip to Juventus next weekend, and a visit to fellow top-four rivals Atalanta also still to come, Pioli's men need to use this win as a platform to rebuild some momentum.

Hakan at it again

The midfielder created and finished off a well-worked Milan opener, with Kessie also deserving of praise for dummying Saelemaekers' pass for his team-mate to convert.

Calhanoglu, who became the fourth Turkish player to score 50 goals in the top five European leagues this century, ended the contest with a game-high 48 passes in the opposition half.

Zlatan denied

The veteran striker missed Milan's last three games through suspension and injury but was deemed fit enough to start against Benevento.

He had a few good opportunities to score but could not find a way past inspired keeper Montipo from any of his seven shots, five of which were on target.

What's next?

Milan have that huge showdown with soon-to-be-dethroned champions Juventus a week on Sunday, while Benevento host Cagliari in an equally important clash the same day.

Lucas Hernandez is determined to prove his worth for both club and country as the Bayern Munich defender aims to hold off competition, including potentially from his own brother, to remain a regular for France.  

Hernandez suffered knee and ankle injuries in his first year at Bayern, though he has by no means been a regular this season when available for head coach Hansi Flick.  

The 25-year-old has made 17 Bundesliga appearances – 12 of which have been starts – and also eight outings in the Champions League, helping the German club reach the quarter-final stage in Europe.  

He started at left-back for Les Bleus on Wednesday, the reigning world champions opening their qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022 with a 1-1 home draw against Ukraine.  

"Yes, of course. I'm someone who always wants to play," Hernandez - who joined Bayern from Atletico Madrid in June 2019 - told the media on Thursday.  

"I was injured a lot last year but this year the injuries have left me alone. I played, I wanted to restore confidence to the club that bought me two years ago. There were times when I was frustrated, angry when I was on the bench.   

"At Bayern, the competition is very strong. I had times when I played less, but I still have confidence in myself, I have always worked in training.  

"There is also a lot of competition in the France team too, we are always in danger. It's up to me to hang on."

Hernandez was a reliable option for France boss Didier Deschamps in the successful World Cup campaign in Russia in 2018, though appreciates he cannot just take his place for granted.  

Younger sibling Theo is one of those hoping to force his way in. The 23-year-old has yet to make his debut for the senior team but is excelling at Milan, contributing five goals and six assists this season.  

He has created 45 chances in total in the 2020-21 campaign, putting him behind only Hakan Calhanoglu for Stefano Pioli's squad. His tackle success rate, meanwhile, sits at 64.1 per cent.  

"At the moment offensively, he is very strong," Lucas said of Theo. "He has this confidence to take the ball and break through the lines easily. He is having a very good season.   

"It was already the case last year; I hope that one day he can be here [with the France squad]. It is not for me to choose that. It is not my choice.   

"In previous years, when he was at Real Madrid or Real Sociedad, he had a little more trouble. But since he has been in Milan, he is confident – and it shows in the stats, with assists and goals. He's very offensive. 

"He's my brother, I have that family feeling. He's a very good player, I like him a lot. I hope he can be here one day."

There was not the gulf some might have anticipated at Old Trafford last week as Manchester United welcomed an injury-hit Milan side.

Four days on from a superb win at rivals Manchester City, United came within two minutes of another big result and a 1-0 lead to take to San Siro, but it was an advantage they scarcely deserved.

A moment of ingenuity from Amad Diallo, heading his first United goal from an excellent Bruno Fernandes pass, had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men in front.

At the other end, without Theo Hernandez, Hakan Calhanoglu and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Milan repeatedly threatened but lacked the same quality. They had 15 attempts - worth just 1.0 expected non-penalty goals (xG) - and only scored with the last of them, when Simon Kjaer's close-range header evaded the clutches of Dean Henderson.

That away goal sets up an intriguing second leg in which United must now score, although they might have put this Europa League last-16 tie beyond Milan prior to Kjaer's equaliser.

As the Rossoneri fashioned only one 'big chance', from which Opta would expect them to score, United had two from just seven shots. Harry Maguire somehow hit the post and Daniel James stabbed wide, chances that contributed heavily to a superior xG total of 1.4.

Those misses may well prove costly when the tie continues at San Siro on Thursday.

Hernandez and Calhanoglu returned to the Milan XI against Napoli on Sunday and are set to be joined against United by the team's talisman.

In the week his return to the international stage for Sweden at Euro 2020 was confirmed, Ibrahimovic will enjoy another reunion, fit to play some part against his former club.

"His return is important," head coach Stefano Pioli said of Ibrahimovic, who has been out since February with a thigh injury. "He will not be able to have 90 minutes in his legs and tomorrow we will see what to do."

United were hanging on against short-handed opponents, restricted to just 41.2 per cent of the possession in the final 15 minutes, 36.4 per cent of which played out in the home side's own third. It was an encounter that should give Milan huge confidence now Hernandez, Calhanoglu and Ibrahimovic are available.

For all their exciting build-up play, the final pass was missing in Manchester. That cutting edge is returning in Milan.

Among Serie A defenders this season, Hernandez ranks joint-third for goals (five), joint-fourth for assists (six) and fourth for chances created (45) in all competitions. He is seventh across all players in the division for expected assists from open play (xG - 3.9) in league action.

Hakan Calhanoglu's numbers are even more impressive. He has created 99 chances in all competitions this term, second only to opposite number Fernandes (107) across Europe's 'top five' leagues.

Having failed to handle Kjaer and Co. from set-pieces last week, United have reason to fear Calhanoglu's delivery. No player can top the 51 opportunities he has forged from set plays. Five of his 10 assists have come from such scenarios.

Crucially, too, of course, Calhanoglu will have a 39-year-old Swede to look for, a focal point also absent last time out.

Rafael Leao played up front for 90 minutes and attempted only a single shot, having four touches in the United box. Ibrahimovic this season averages 4.8 shots and 8.5 touches in the opposition area per 90 minutes.

His xG rate is the highest in Serie A among those to play 500 minutes or more, at 0.8 per 90, and he usually takes those chances, too. With 16 goals from 80 attempts in all competitions, he scores one in five.

Maguire and James were wasteful in the first leg; it seems unlikely Ibrahimovic, always one for the big stage, will be similarly so.

If Milan can dictate the play again this week, they have the attacking talent to settle this tie.

Ante Rebic, Rade Krunic and Theo Hernandez have been cleared to return to action for Milan.

It was confirmed prior to Milan's game with Juventus on January 6 that Rebic and Krunic had tested positive for coronavirus and they have not played since.

Hernandez and Hakan Calhanoglu returned positive results from tests administered last Saturday, ruling them out of the game with Cagliari on Monday.

However, Milan revealed on Thursday that Hernandez's result was a "false positive", while Rebic and Kurnic have now tested negative.

A club statement read: "Milan announces that both Ante Rebic and Rade Krunic underwent a molecular swab test with negative results and this morning had the medical exams required to resume professional activity.

"Further examinations have shown that Theo Hernandez was a 'false positive'. The documentation has been provided to the health authorities and the player can now resume training."

Milan sit top of Serie A with a three-point advantage over local rivals Inter, who they face in the Coppa Italia next week.

Before that, though, they entertain Atalanta in a league clash at San Siro on Saturday.

Stefano Pioli confirmed Milan will consider adding further to their squad in January amid speculation Mario Mandzukic is set to join the club.

Mandzukic – who previously played in Serie A with Juventus – is a free agent after terminating his contract with Al-Duhail by mutual consent in July.

The Rossoneri are reportedly going to sign the Croatian striker on an 18-month deal, boosting their forward options as they look to maintain their push to win the league for the first time in a decade.

Pioli was not willing to discuss individual names at his pre-match news conference ahead of Monday's trip to Cagliari but did admit the club are ready to act if the right player becomes available.

"I don't want to and cannot comment on players that I don't have," he told the media. "I have a lot of confidence in the club and the management team. I leave that task to them.

"We know that if there is the possibility of strengthening the team, we will do it. We will be ready in January if there is the possibility of improving this group." 

Milan have already made one signing in the mid-season transfer window, midfielder Soualiho Meite arriving on loan from Torino.

"Meite makes a department that already had good solidity even more competitive," Pioli said of the new recruit.

"I really liked the move. We have combined quality and quantity. I also liked how he spoke, saying he was ambitious. To join our group, you have to be like that."

The Serie A leaders head to Cagliari without Hakan Calhanoglu and Theo Hernandez, both players currently isolating after testing positive for coronavirus.

Pioli admits it is a blow to be without the influential duo – they are also set to miss next Saturday's home fixture with Atalanta – but is confident he has the quality within his squad to cope with such situations during the course of the season.

"They are important absences, but this season is like that," the Milan boss said. "There are critical issues that can come at any moment, so we must always be prepared and attentive.

"The quality of the players that I will have available tomorrow will certainly make us have a good match.

"We are prepared, that's why I expect the players to always be ready. We can all be decisive and help the team."

Milan have announced Hakan Calhanoglu and Theo Hernandez have tested positive for COVID-19.

The two cases were discovered following swab tests carried out on Saturday, with the club immediately informing the health authorities upon learning the results.

Both players are asymptomatic and the rest of the squad tested negative, Milan confirmed in a statement released on Sunday.

Calhanoglu and Hernandez are now isolating at home, leaving Milan without the duo for some key fixtures coming up in January.

The Serie A leaders - who have lost just once in league action this season so far - visit Cagliari on Monday, then host Atalanta at San Siro next Saturday.

There is also a Coppa Italia quarter-final clash with rivals Inter looming on the horizon, that tie due to be played on January 25. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's arrival at Milan last year "was a godsend" that helped transform the club, according to head coach Stefano Pioli.

The ex-Sweden international returned to San Siro for a second permanent spell with the Italian giants roughly a year ago, making his second debut as a substitute against Sampdoria on January 6.

He has been in sensational form since then, scoring 20 and assisting six goals in 24 Serie A matches in 2020, a tally bettered only by Ciro Immobile (34 goal involvements in 33 games) and Cristiano Ronaldo (38 in 29).

Ibrahimovic's haul includes a return of 10 goals in six league matches in the first half of this season, two of those strikes coming in Milan's 3-1 win over Napoli in November before he limped off with an injury that has kept him sidelined since.

That double saw him match Gunnar Nordahl for the second-most Serie A goals from the first eight games played of a season, behind only Marco van Basten (12 in 1992-93).

Ibrahimovic is also the oldest player to net at least 10 goals in the first eight Serie A matchdays, and Pioli has hailed the veteran striker's impact over the past 12 months.

"When he arrived, we knew it was a delicate moment, it was a godsend, it gave a shock and energy that the team did not have at that moment," Pioli said at a news conference previewing Sunday's trip to Benevento. 

"The January transfer market has given us a hand in the past. But let's think about the match against Benevento."

As well as struggling with niggling injuries, Ibrahimovic has also spent a spell on the sidelines this term with coronavirus.

Milan have fared well in the 39-year-old's absence, however, winning six and drawing two of the eight Serie A matches he has missed for a 75 per cent win rate, compared to 66.7 per cent across the six games he has started.

But while Pioli is unwilling to rush Ibrahimovic's return, he is understandably eager to get one of his key men back on the field.

"He can't wait to get back, but we need caution," he said. "I hope he can come back as soon as possible."

Another key performer for Serie A table-toppers Milan this season has been full-back Theo Hernandez, who has chipped in with three goals and an assist in his past three outings.

Hernandez was directly involved in 11 league goals – six scored and five assisted – in 2020 and also completed the most successful dribbles in the competition (57).

That includes a last-gasp winner against Lazio last time out, though Pioli can see the former Real Madrid man getting better with time.

"He has played for [Real] Madrid and has incredible potential," Pioli said. "With work, he is improving day by day, proving to be at a high level. 

"But he can still improve in both phases of the game."

Page 2 of 2
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.