Between matchdays six and seven of the new Serie A season, there will be a couple of big birthdays at AC Milan. As they fall within four days of one another, the milestone men could share a cake. But it would need to be a large one if they want space for all 75 candles.
On September 30, Milan’s new centre-forward Olivier Giroud turns 35. On October 3, Milan’s perpetually rejuvenated striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic reaches 40. By then, there will be a clearer idea whether this vintage pairing can propel a challenge for the Italian title and perhaps a roll-back-the-years Champions League surge. Or whether their partnership will show that attempts to cheat age at the sharp end of the field are best attempted with only one old warrior at a time.
This is a productive era for the well-preserved, diligent thirty-something striker. Last season, Atletico Madrid won the Spanish Liga galvanised by the goals of Luis Suarez, who is 34 and had been cast away from Barcelona because they deemed him too far past his peak to justify a high wage. In France, Lille became upstart Ligue 1 champions thanks to the drive, goals and savvy of Burak Yilmaz, now 36.
It was a season that advertised the ageless excellence of Edinson Cavani, 34, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, now 36 and 34, were respectively leading scorers in Serie A and the Spanish top flight.
Juventus’s Ronaldo might have reached the top of that podium a little less comfortably had Milan’s Ibrahimovic maintained his fitness through the campaign. ‘Ibra’ scored his 15 goals at one every 100 minutes in between lay-offs. Ronaldo notched his 29 at one per 97 minutes.
Ibrahimovic is currently working his way back to match-readiness from the knee problem that prevented him making a much-heralded tournament comeback with Sweden at Euro 2020. The target date for his Milan return is early September, too late for Monday’s fixture against Sampdoria, the last of the matches on the opening weekend of the 2021-22 Serie A season.
That he is still there at all was hardly anticipated when, 20 months ago, he returned for a second spell at Milan. He came in, having spent four years in Los Angeles playing MLS football, as a short-term firefighter, a feel-good factor for a crisis.
Milan were in the bottom half of the table at the time, Stefano Pioli effectively a caretaker manager with candidates to replace him being lined up. Ibrahimovic altered the picture, with a goal in his first start, and goal-and-assist contributions in his first Milan derby for eight years — he finished his first stint at Milan in 2012 — and in a win over Juventus. Pioli stayed in the job, and Ibrahimovic was on his way to extending his contract well beyond what most footballers call retirement age.
Pioli has made clear that the signing of Giroud — a World Cup winner whose contract at Chelsea expired just after the Frenchman had picked up a Champions League gold medal (he was an unused substitute in May’s final against Manchester City) — a device to share the centre-forward’s load. Milan do not expect great speed or frenetic 90-mobility from either Giroud and Ibrahimovic, but Pioli is shaping a 4-4-2 tactical plan that would accommodate them both in the starting XI.
“We can work well together,” said Giroud before making a strong impression in pre-season friendlies. “It’s not hard to develop a good understanding with great players like Zlatan and I can adapt my game to his.”
If it works smoothly, Giroud’s strength in the air and with back to goal should be appreciated by Ibrahimovic. If it works spectacularly, some eye-catching goals are in prospect: Giroud and Ibrahimovic are both former winners of Fifa’s annual Puskas Award for the best goal scored anywhere.
The Swede has been nominated for it no less than four times. Giroud’s ample back-catalogue of sensational strikes is sometimes obscured by his reputation for being only an orthodox target man.
The two veterans have aims beyond this season, which, thanks to their runners-up finish in Italy last season, will be Milan’s first in the Champions League since 2013-2014. The World Cup is only 15 months away. Giroud intends to be there for France’s defence of the title. Ibrahimovic wants to at least be in the conversation about whether Sweden could afford not to take a 41-year-old national treasure there if they qualify.