Erling Haaland's sensational winner against Borussia Dortmund echoed two greats in the form of Johan Cruyff and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, says Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.

Haaland netted with an acrobatic 84th-minute volley from Joao Cancelo's expert centre to seal three points for City against his former club in the Champions League on Wednesday.

It marked a fine turnaround after John Stones had already cancelled out Jude Bellingham's opener with a fierce long-range hit at the Etihad Stadium.

For City boss Guardiola, Haaland's athletic effort drew comparisons to Cruyff's famous strike for Barcelona against Atletico Madrid in 1973 – often referred to as the 'ghost goal' due to the scarcity of the available quality footage.

"Maybe the people who know me, you know the influence Johan Cruyff had in my life, as a person, an educator, a manager and mentor, everything," Guardiola said.

"Johan Cruyff, years and years ago at Camp Nou he scored an incredible goal against Atletico Madrid. It was quite similar. The moment he scored the goal I thought, Johan Cruyff.

"It was quite similar. It was a really good one. The pass from Joao is exceptional, he has the ability to do this kind of thing. Simple things, every ball he has, he has to make this kind of action, I know he can do it. That's football, you cannot force it. He made an incredible assist pass and the finishing from Erling was exceptional."

While Guardiola idolises Cruyff, he had a much tenser relationship with one of European football's modern greats, Ibrahimovic.

The striker spent just a season at Barcelona during Guardiola's tenure and the two did not see eye to eye.

Yet Guardiola sees the similarities in skill level between Haaland – who is now the youngest player in Champions League history to score for and against the same side in the competition – and the Milan forward, though he could not resist a sarcastic quip.

"The first impression that I had, I remember a little bit my friend, my dear friend Ibrahimovic, had this incredible ability to pull back in the air, you know, and Erling is quite similar on that," Guardiola added with a smile.

"He is elastic, flexible and to have that ability to make the contact to put it in the net. He is mature, and he has that flexibility."

The game marked Guardiola's 150th Champions League match as a manager, and he brought up his 95th win. Only two managers have won more games in the competition’s history – Alex Ferguson (102) and Carlo Ancelotti (100).

However, it was not an easy ride, with City performing well below their level until Dortmund took the lead. Indeed, their two goals came with their first two shots on target.

"We had a lot of problems to get our rhythm, we were so passive, our movements to be aggressive," explained Guardiola, who compared the match to the last time City met Dortmund, in the Champions League quarter-finals in April 2021.

"Yes, we struggled, we played in the wrong gear. We are who we are, win or lose, the way we played in the last 30 minutes, when we realised we were 1-0 down. We gave it another rhythm.

"The Champions League doesn't wait, it doesn't forgive you. They defended really well, hopefully we can learn the lesson for Saturday, against one of the toughest opponents we've had in the last few years against Wolves, and hopefully it will help us against Dortmund in the [return match]."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic still has no concrete plans to retire despite his latest injury woes, claiming he will only stop once he has seen a player who is "stronger than me".

Ibrahimovic will turn 41 in early October and is into his third full season at Milan, having joined from LA Galaxy in December 2019.

Injuries have been a regular source of frustration for the Swede since his return to Milan, though he still has a fine goalscoring record of 33 in 60 Serie A appearances during his second spell at the club.

Ibrahimovic is not expected to play again this year after having surgery on an anterior cruciate ligament injury in May, an injury that at the time seemed likely to end his career.

But it appears the enigmatic striker is determined to go out on his own terms, dismissing recent comments from former Milan player and executive Zvonimir Boban, who said it was "not right" for Ibrahimovic to keep playing.

Asked about Boban's opinion, Ibrahimovic told Gazzetta dello Sport: "If I see a player stronger than me, I'll stop. But I haven't seen him yet.

"I am arrogant, [I have] zero fear. I'm fine, I work every day to come back. When I come back, I'll be heard, you can count on it.

"I'll [return] with violence. It takes patience – this is the key now."

Ibrahimovic helped Milan to Scudetto success before his injury, with that being the Rossoneri's first league title since 2011, during his first spell.

Milan have enjoyed a decent start to their title defence, with Napoli and Atalanta only sitting above them in the table after six games by virtue of a better goal difference.

When Ibrahimovic does return to the pitch, he believes he will be coming into a team that is even better than the one that won the title, appearing particularly excited about Charles de Ketelaere.

"De Ketelaere is top, I say so. You just have to give him some time to grow," he continued.

"We are even stronger than last year as a group. Overall, we are a better team, the market in the summer after the Scudetto strengthened us and now we have more alternatives on the bench.

"If I hadn't liked it [the transfer business], I wouldn't have been here."

Milan veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic has vowed he will return and clarified he has no plans to retire.

The forward, who turns 41 in October, underwent ACL surgery in May but signed a one-year contract extension with the Rossoneri in July.

Given the former Sweden international's age and the severity of the injury there has been talk that he will not return, but Ibrahimovic insisted he will with a January timeframe on the cards.

"I will be back soon," Zlatan told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"I'm not going to retire, I'm coming back and I won't give up."

Ibrahimovic helped Milan clinch last season's Serie A title, scoring eight league goals with two assists from 23 appearances, including 11 starts.

Milan have collected 14 points from six games this campaign to sit third, with Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud both netting three times.

InjuredNew signing Divock Origi is yet to start for Milan, making four appearances off the bench in all competitions for no goals.

Olivier Giroud hopes to follow Zlatan Ibrahimovic's lead by playing at an elite level for several more years, as he targets a spot in Didier Deschamps' France squad for the World Cup in Qatar. 

Giroud found the net as Milan claimed a 3-2 victory over rivals Inter on Saturday, his 13th goal in just 25 Serie A starts for the Rossoneri.

The 35-year-old signed an initial two-year contract when he made the move to Italy in July 2021, but is keen to play on beyond the end of this season and has been inspired by the hunger of his fellow Milan striker Ibrahimovic. 

Speaking to Telefoot, Giroud said: "I still have the motivation and determination. I think the state of mind is important at my age. 

"I would like to continue, but only if my body will allow me. 

"I was discussing it with Ibra. For him it is the same, Zlatan is still hungry."

Ibrahimovic, 40, scored eight times as Milan ended an 11-year wait for the Scudetto last season, having also plundered 14 goals in 29 appearances when the Rossoneri were last crowned champions of Italy in 2010-11.

While Milan's Scudetto triumph represented Giroud's first league title since winning Ligue 1 with Montpellier in 2011-12, his trophy haul includes a 2018 World Cup win with France.

Giroud, who is just three goals short of matching Thierry Henry as the most prolific player in Les Bleus' history, has scored two international goals in 2022, and is keen to feature at his third World Cup later this year.

"I don't know anything honestly, also because I'm not the coach. But obviously it must be a goal," he said. 

"With my history with France, having the chance to play a third World Cup is a chance. I think, if that was not a goal, it would be nonsense. 

"The number one goal is daily life with Milan, France is still a bonus.

"If I am world champion for the second time, I will have to do something a little crazy, [like] shave my beard!"

Meanwhile, Giroud is set to be reunited with one of his former clubs next month, with Milan travelling to Chelsea in the Champions League on October 5.

The striker retains much affection for the club and believes he will receive a positive reception at Stamford Bridge, adding: "I hope for a warm welcome from Chelsea in London. I left the Blues on good terms, like all my other clubs. 

"Returning to play with Milan at Stamford Bridge is great. I think it will be a good moment."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will continue playing for Milan past the age of 41 after signing a one-year contract with the Rossoneri.

The Sweden international returned to San Siro in December 2019 after leaving Major League Soccer side LA Galaxy.

Ibrahimovic vowed he would end Milan's long wait for the Scudetto and subsequently delivered in the 2021-22 season as the Rossoneri won their first Serie A title in 11 years.

Injuries restricted the striker to just 12 appearances in all competitions last term, but only Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud (both 14) scored more goals than the 40-year-old's eight.

Ibrahimovic is expected to be out until January following an operation on his left knee, but Milan have rewarded the forward with a new contract to keep him at the club until June 2023.

Former Liverpool striker Divock Origi arrived earlier in the transfer window to bolster Pioli's attacking options as Milan aim to defend their Serie A title in the upcoming campaign, which the Rossoneri start at home to Udinese on August 13.

The Belgian scored 22 goals in 107 Premier League appearances for Jurgen Klopp's side, while only starting 34 of those matches, and will provide additional competition for striking options alongside Giroud, Leao and Ibrahimovic.

Olivier Giroud joked he will treat Zlatan Ibrahimovic to dinner if the Swedish striker agrees to a new contract with Serie A champions Milan.

Ibrahimovic, who turns 41 in October, officially became a free agent last week after his existing deal at San Siro expired.

Despite his age and fitness issues that restricted him to only 12 starts in all competitions last season, the veteran is reported to have been offered a one-year deal by Milan.

Only Rafael Leao and Giroud (both 14) scored more goals than Ibrahimovic's eight last term, and the latter is hopeful of spending another season with the much-travelled striker.

"When he signs the renewal, I will pay for dinner," Giroud told Tuttomercatoweb. "We want him to sign, but there is obviously no pressure. 

"He is still hungry and he is important for the locker room. I talked a lot with him. He has the same desire to win even at 40."

Giroud's goals helped Milan to a first Scudetto triumph for 11 years in what was the France international's first season at the club after joining from Chelsea.

It was the second domestic league trophy won by Giroud, having previously lifted Ligue 1 win Montpellier in 2011-12.

Milan finished two points ahead of rivals Inter, while Juventus were 16 points adrift in fourth, but World Cup winner Giroud expects both sides to be stronger this coming season.

"Juve and Inter are the teams that have strengthened the most, so it will be a fierce battle between them and us," Giroud said.

Stefano Pioli's side have themselves strengthened, with striker Divock Origi among those to have arrived since Milan lifted the title in May.

The Belgium striker scored 22 goals in 107 Premier League appearances for Liverpool, while only starting 34 of those matches, and Giroud is relishing the additional competition.

"He speaks French, so I did my role as a big brother because it is very important to welcome everyone even if I am going to compete with him," Giroud said.

"I have always said that competition is very important to be strong, to learn and to give your best. It's a good reinforcement."

Hakan Calhanoglu believes Inter are a stronger team than Milan despite the latter's Scudetto success, while he questioned the behaviour of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

Calhanoglu watched on as Inter lifted the Serie A title in the 2020-21 season, when he was playing for fierce rivals Milan. 

The Turkey international switched city allegiances by joining Inter for the following campaign, which finished with Milan winning the Scudetto and ending a 1,976-day wait for a trophy. 

That also marked the first time that Inter and Milan finished in Serie A's top two in consecutive seasons, but Calhanoglu says Simone Inzaghi's side are far stronger than their neighbours. 

"Inter are a much stronger team than Milan. We lost a derby that suddenly changed in the 75th minute after [Ivan] Perisic and I were substituted," the midfielder told Tivibu Spor.  

"We were leading 1-0, then we lost 2-1. The coach [Inzaghi] also contributed to that defeat, I told him. In the cup, however, we beat them 3-0. The team is very ambitious." 

Ibrahimovic could be seen smoking a cigar at Milan's title celebrations, where he took the microphone and told supporters: "Hey, send a message to Hakan." 

Calhanoglu insists he would not have behaved like Ibrahimovic, questioning his actions at 40 years old. 

"He's a 40-year-old man, I wouldn't do a thing like that if I was that age. He's not 18. He likes to be the centre of attention," he added.  

"This year he didn't contribute to the Scudetto, he hardly ever played. But he does everything to attract the attention of the fans. 

"I don't care at all. It's not right because he's someone who always calls me when I'm in Milan, who wants to go out for dinner and ride a motorcycle with me. 

"I respected him. He also wrote about me in his book, he had to write these things or his book would be empty. I won't answer him, it's better not to answer." 

Dusan Vlahovic believes comparisons with former Juventus striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic are "unfair", with the Serbia international wanting to focus on his own career.

The evergreen Ibrahimovic played for Juve for two seasons between 2004 and 2006, lifting the Scudetto in back-to-back campaigns.

Ibrahimovic has since returned to Milan – via Inter, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and LA Galaxy – and helped to end the Rossoneri's 11-year wait for the Scudetto this season.

Vlahovic swapped Fiorentina for Juve in a big-money move in January, managing 10 goal involvements in his 21 outings in all competitions – two more than any Bianconeri team-mate since he made his debut.

The former Viola talisman offers Massimiliano Allegri's side a notable point of difference up top, with his physicality and strength in contrast to the diminutive figure of the outgoing Paulo Dybala.

That has led to comparisons between Vlahovic and Sweden veteran Ibrahimovic, but the former is uninterested in the debate surrounding the pair.

"Comparing players with great champions who have scored 400, 500 goals in their careers, who have won 20 or 30 titles, is probably a little unfair!," Vlahovic told The Telegraph.

"It doesn't annoy me but it's also true that when those types of comparison are made and then you make one or two mistakes and the expectations have been hyped then you get critiqued.

"We all have the right to make mistakes; we are all human. I want to have my own career."

While Juve convinced Vlahovic to move to Turin in January, Premier League side Arsenal were also among his suitors, but the striker insists he never spoke to the Gunners about a transfer.

"Maybe my agent knows [about Arsenal's offer] but I never talked to anyone about it," he continued.

"I just had one club in my mind because Juventus is Juventus. There is nothing else to say, and now I feel honoured to be given this jersey. It's incredible every time I put it on.

"I definitely identify with their DNA. The Juventus personality coincides with my personality. When you come here you never give up, you fight all the time, you make the sacrifices. This was definitely what I was looking for."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is "like a father" in the Milan dressing room, according to Rossoneri midfielder Brahim Diaz.

The 40-year-old striker only started 12 games across all competitions for Stefano Pioli's side during the 2021-22 campaign, which ended with Milan claiming their first Serie A title in 11 years.

Ibrahimovic is now out for up to eight months following an operation on his left knee last month, and with his contract expiring at the end of June, his future is up in the air.

Diaz, on loan at San Siro from Real Madrid, has hailed the iconic striker's contribution to Milan's recent success, claiming he improves those around him.

Speaking at an awards ceremony hosted by Marca, Diaz said: "Ibrahimovic is my father's age, but he still makes a difference. For me, he is like a father in the locker room.

"He has made my life easier because when I have the ball I have to pass it to him and if I don't he doesn't get angry. 

"He is an incredible player, with great charisma and who loves to win.

"He likes to work in training and he also passes it on to others. He makes all the players better because he pushes you to always give your best."

Diaz scored four goals in 40 appearances across all competitions last season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic revealed he has "never suffered so much" as he did in the past six months after the Milan striker underwent knee surgery.

The new Serie A champions on Wednesday revealed Ibrahimovic will be out for up to eight months following an operation on his left knee.

Ibrahimovic came off the bench in a 3-0 win over Sassuolo on Sunday that sealed the Rossoneri's first Scudetto for 11 years.

The 40-year-old Sweden striker only started 12 games for Stefano Pioli's side this season and with his contract expiring at the end of next month, his future is up in the air.

Ibrahimovic on Thursday opened up on the pain he has experienced this year.

"For the past six months I played without an ACL in my left knee," he posted on Instagram.

"Swollen knee for six months. I was only able to train with the team 10 times in the last six months.

"Took more than 20 injections in six months. Emptied the knee once a week for six months. Painkillers every day for six months.

"Barely slept for six months because of the pain. Never suffered so much on and off the pitch. I made something impossible to something possible.

"In my mind I had only one objective, to make my team-mates and coach champions of Italy because I made them a promise. Today I have a new ACL and another trophy."

Milan have confirmed Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss the rest of 2022 after having surgery on a knee problem, stoking speculation the forward might retire.

Ibrahimovic celebrated Milan's Serie A title success in typical style on Sunday, smoking a cigar as he made his way out onto the pitch for the trophy presentation.

Yet the 40-year-old – who came off the bench in the 3-0 win over Sassuolo that sealed the title – might have made his final appearance for Milan, and possibly of his career, after he underwent surgery on his left knee.

Milan revealed on Wednesday that Ibrahimovic will face between seven and eight months out of action, but that the surgery was a success.

"AC Milan announces that Zlatan Ibrahimovic underwent surgery on his left knee today by Dr. Bertrand Sonnery-Cottet, in the presence of club medical director Stefano Mazzoni, at the Hopital Jean Mermoz in Lyon," read a Milan statement.

"The arthroscopy had been planned for some time to definitively resolve the instability of the joint through reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament, with lateral reinforcement and meniscal repair. The operation was perfectly successful and the prognosis is estimated at seven-to-eight months."

Ibrahimovic scored eight goals from 23 Serie A appearances this season, though his last start in the competition came in January. His contract ends in June.

Reports in Italy earlier this week claimed Milan would only be offering the Sweden international a new deal should surgery not be required, also suggesting Ibrahimovic would consider retirement if an operation was needed.

Olivier Giroud has revelled in being able to celebrate Milan's "special, unique" Serie A success with two of the great Rossoneri strikers.

Giroud scored two goals on Sunday's final day of the season to help clinch a 3-0 win at Sassuolo and the Scudetto.

The triumph ended an 11-year wait for a title for Milan and a 10-year wait for Giroud, whose sole previous domestic championship came with Montpellier.

"This Scudetto with Milan has a special, unique flavour," the forward told la Repubblica.

"I won the only national title in my career 10 years ago in Ligue 1, at Montpellier. I was young. This is the triumph of maturity.

"I was talking about it with my brother. Thinking about it, I still have goosebumps, especially since I won with the Milan shirt."

Giroud's love for all things Milan made one post-title message particularly precious, as former Ballon d'Or winner Andriy Shevchenko reached out.

"We felt the emotion of the fans, who have been waiting for this joy for 11 years," Giroud added. "This club is back in its place, I'm proud of us.

"As a kid, my idol was Shevchenko – he sent me a message of compliments; he made me too happy."

Meanwhile, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a member of Milan's previous title-winning team and now back aged 40, has also had a big role to play.

Giroud, himself a veteran at 35, said: "Zlatan is the alpha male. When he speaks, everyone pays attention.

"On the bus, he grabbed the microphone and had a personalised gift for everyone, from us players to every member of the staff. Before the games, he made videos and messages.

"He is a leader, I hope he can continue. I told him I'm proud to have played with him. For me, he is like a big brother."

The season's only real lowlight was a group-stage exit in the Champions League, meaning the target now is to kick on in Europe.

"That's the next step: to go as far as possible in Europe," the World Cup winner said.

"The group is certainly growing and if it remains the same, it can continue a winning cycle. I can't wait to go back to Milanello, [after] just a little vacation."

But Giroud also has aims again in Serie A: "[I want] to win again. I came here for the Scudetto, and it has arrived. A sportsman lives his career for moments like this.

"In the midst of such a young team, it's like I'm 20. I am living my second youth."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic declared his Milan mission accomplished as the Rossoneri were crowned Serie A champions for the first time in 11 years – but the veteran has not ruled out playing for another season.

The 40-year-old Swedish striker embarked on the second spell of his career with Milan in December 2019, and said that was at the behest of his long-time agent Mino Raiola, who died in late April.

Ibrahimovic dedicated his title success with Milan to Raiola, who he said had backed him to lift Milan from the doldrums.

The former Juventus and Inter player's impact at San Siro has been remarkable, with a glut of goals early on serving to lift spirits at the club and set the tone for the success that has followed.

Last season, Ibrahimovic scored 16 goals in 26 games as Milan finished second in Serie A, while this term he has also featured 26 times, albeit starting only 12 games and netting eight times.

The returns have been diminishing and injuries have been a problem, with knee and Achilles trouble disrupting his season this time around, but Ibrahimovic's effervescence continues to be infectious as he proves a positive dressing-room presence.

"When I got back here, I remember a journalist at a press conference saying that usually those who go back to where they have been can do only worse," Ibrahimovic told DAZN after the title-clinching 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

"I replied that I would fight to get the club back up and to win the Scudetto. Nobody believed it, but we are here, we have worked hard and made many sacrifices, proving that thanks to work nothing is impossible."

Ibrahimovic was Milan's main man when they won the 2010-11 Serie A title, having previously been a table-topper in Italy with Juve and Inter. He has since starred for Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and LA Galaxy, where it was widely assumed he was winding down his career, albeit with a glut of goals. The return to Milan has proved otherwise in that regard.

He recognised his playing efforts this year had been less influential than in the past two campaigns, and his contract is due to expire next month.

"But I think I have been useful to this group off the pitch," he added.

Milan collected gained 86 points in Serie A this season, and only in 2005-06 (88 points) have they managed more in the era of three points for a win.

Speaking about Raiola, Ibrahimovic said: "The dedication is to Mino Raiola. This is the first trophy I have won without him.

"When I returned to Europe, I was close to Napoli, and then I asked him where I could go to make a difference and he replied that only I could save Milan."

Ibrahimovic puffed on a cigar and celebrated with champagne after Milan secured the Scudetto. If that suggested a sense of finality, Ibrahimovic seemingly did not intend it that way.

He will have his body checked out now the season is over, and said: "If I'm fine, this wasn't my last match. I'll consider whether to have surgery."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic smoked a cigar and toasted Milan's Serie A title triumph with champagne as he collected yet another medal on Sunday.

The Rossoneri secured their first Scudetto for 11 years with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo on the final day of the season, finishing two points clear of city rivals Inter.

All three goals came in the first half at the Mapei Stadium on Sunday, Olivier Giroud scoring twice before Franck Kessie got in the act for rampant Milan.

The outstanding Rafael Leao laid on all three goals as a huge contingent of Milan fans partied in Reggio Emilia, where they moved level with Inter's tally of being crowned champions of Italy 19 times.

It was Ibrahimovic who took centre stage during the trophy presentation ceremony, coming out of the tunnel smoking a cigar and swigging champagne.

The 40-year-old had a goal disallowed for offside against Leao after he came on to replace Giroud in the second half of what could be his final appearance for the club.

Ibrahimovic's contract expires at the end of the month and he could be on the move once again. 

While he has not lit up San Siro this season due to injury problems, if the legendary Swede's Milan career is over, it seems only right that he departs on a such a high note resembling a rock star.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

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