Wind the clock back a bit to 2018. Zlatan Ibrahimović had just terminated his contract with Premier League giants Manchester United to join LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer and scoop up one last big payday after a long career in Europe - or so it seemed.
Setting alight Los Angeles and wider North America with an astonishing 53 goals in 58 appearances, it was quite clear the Swedish international still had so much to offer.
Rather than hang up his boots which have knocked home more than 500 goals over four decades, he embarked on a new challenge on familiar soil donning familiar colors he holds near to his lion heart to prove to both himself and the rest of the world he is built differently.
Bereft of offensive production, leadership and a winner’s mentality in the squad, Milan brought Ibrahimović back last January on a free transfer as the archetypal signing needed for immediate aid and short-term relief for the project to get back on track.
From the moment he returned to the club, Ibrahimović’s mere presence in the changing room, on the training ground and during match days had rubbed off on the rest of the roster, evident in their fantastic run after the covid-19 restart.
Exuding a winning aura and fully embracing his lion-like moniker, Ibrahimović has proven to be of a rare breed and of a certain mold that does not come around often in football. His cocky, yet confident, attitude is often mistaken for arrogance. Instead, he wears it as a badge of honor, a cape strapped to his back in the event he is called upon to save the day.
On Sunday, in Milan’s visit to Udinese, calls came from Milanisti all over for more Ibrahimović heroics - and they were emphatically answered.
As the guardian and elder statesmen of Stefano Pioli’s youth-driven Rossoneri, Ibrahimović continued to serve as the reference point for which the club worked to play off. While his legs are not quite as quick anymore, his exceptional technical ability, sleek footwork, awareness, and innate eye to drum up a decent goalscoring chance for himself or a teammate is what makes him so influential over 90 minutes.
Trapping the ball played in by Ismaël Bennacer, the Scudetto-winning striker immediately squared a pass to Franck Kessie who made no mistake with his finish into the net.
Operating with a head on a swivel, Ibrahimovic’s wildly eclectic eye and overall intelligence to read the play around him served as a beacon of light up front. For all the sharpness the former Paris Saint-Germain star brings to the pitch from an advanced mental makeup, his ability to produce under immense pressure is why the youth in the squad often latch onto him in delicate times where the match seems to hang in the balance.
To no surprise, with the match level at 1-1, Milan’s box office star and main gate attraction delivered yet another solo moment of sheer brilliance and ingenuity that bordered on genius.
After Rebic’s cross swung into the box made its way into the air, Ibrahimović provided more magic with an overhead kick attempt that trickled into the back of Juan Musso’s net as the eventual match-winner.
According to Opta, Ibrahimović has been involved in 22 goals in 22 league matches this year with 16 goals and 6 assists.
Averaging a goal every 45 minutes, and lending a hand in 10 in seven match across all competitions this term, Serie A’s top scorer is largely to credit for Milan’s current position atop the table.
Burning so heavily hot in his desire to win, COVID-19 was no match for Zlatan, and neither is the Father Time he continues to defy as he approaches 40.