After a much needed reset and re-charging of the batteries these past few weeks during the international break, Milan faced one of their most important tests of the season thus far in Napoli.
Entering the match, the Rossoneri found themselves alone at the top of the Serie A table in first and feeling good about the current state of affairs. On Sunday, Gennaro Gattuso’s Partenopei presented a real challenge that would measure just how well the red and black stack up amongst those vying for the league title.
Milan boss Stefano Pioli and his trusted assistant manager Giacomo Murelli each continued their recovery procedures from covid-19, leaving former defender Daniele Bonera to lead the squad into Naples where they have not won in over a decade. Certainly, it would require something special from a certain someone for the visitors to exercise their San Paolo demons.
Enter Zlatan Ibrahimović.
The 39-year old, who entered the weekend as top scorer ahead of Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo, came out of the tunnel roaring, barking orders, spearheading the attack and serving as the reference point for which those around him strive to play off.
At times, it seemed as though Napoli’s strategy was to man-mark the Swede with multiple defenders and essentially keep him isolated from the rest of the attackers. For most, that tactic would yield success, but Ibrahimović is simply built differently, requiring only the slightest windows to exploit and a half-chance to pounce exemplary of his lion-like moniker he so confidently embraces.
Lurking around the top of the penalty area with Kalidou Koulibaly and Mario Rui keeping a close eye on him, Ibrahimović instinctively took a position that Theo Hernandez both recognized and had the utmost confidence in the star striker pulling off a solo moment of brilliance.
Ibrahimović’s glancing, redirected header would leave Alex Meret defenseless towards the back post for the first goal. But just when you thought you had seen it all from Serie A’s October MVP, he pulled out more magic.
After Hakan Calhanoglu released the key pass into space behind the defense for Ante Rebic, Ibrahimović ensured his onside position before finishing off the Croatian’s cross with his knee.
Truly, it was an emphatic finish that we have come to know, love and expect from Zlatan, yet still were in awe of.
Despite leaving the match early with an apparent leg injury, Ibrahimović’s brace propelled Milan to the 1-3 victory, reclaiming sole possession of first after Sassuolo had temporarily claimed it earlier in the day.
In the process, he became only the fourth ever to score in his first six Serie A appearances of a season.
Though we have yet to learn the severity of the injury, one could only assume the medical marvel that is Zlatan will do everything in his power to return soon, pile onto his current 10 goal output and ultimately help Milan meet every seasonal objective.
The Swede could remain out of action up to a month and it remains to be seen how Stefano Pioli would replace him. Ante Rebic is likely to move up front while Ibra is on the sidelines with Brahim Diaz replacing the injured Rafael Leao on the left.
Ibra missed four games due to Covid at the beginning of the season, Rebic replaced him in two Serie A games against Crotone and Spezia while youngsters Lorenzo Colombo and Daniel Maldini played up front in Europa League against Bodo/Glimt and Rio Ave respectively.
The Rossoneri managed four wins from four games. Will they be able to keep it up without their best player?