Zlatan Ibrahimovic treads into matches against English opposition with extra purpose. He’s endured the best part of 20 years of myth-making around the idea that he performs less effectively against the might of the Premier League. Even his late-career success at Manchester United did not entirely erase those notions.
Ibrahimovic remembers the chants he used to hear from English supporters when he was in his early 30s. “‘You’re just a fake Andy Carroll', fans from England sang,” Ibrahimovic recalls in his latest autobiography, Adrenalina, published in Italy at the weekend. Carroll was a shorthand for old-fashioned target man. The comparison was not meant as a compliment for Ibrahimovic, who blends physical power with uncanny vision and a deft touch.
“The English always spoke badly of me,” he writes. “They’d say: ‘Ibra never scores in England, Ibra always avoided the Premier League, Ibra’s a diva, and so on.”
When he stopped avoiding the Premier League, joining Manchester United at the ripe age of 35, he finished the 2016-17 season with the best goals-per-appearance record of any striker among all that season’s top 10 marksmen.
One of his 17 league goals for United even came against Liverpool, a stubborn opponent over the decades.
Two months after his 40th birthday, Ibrahimovic is entrusted with supplying for AC Milan the tools to pull off a minor miracle against Liverpool at San Siro. To have any possibility of reaching the knockout phase of the Champions League, Milan must on Tuesday beat a team who have lost only once this season and have a 100 per cent record in Champions League Group B, where they have scored an average of three goals per game.
The good news is that Jurgen Klopp’s squad ensured their top place in the group even before matchday five. The ominous signal for Stefano Pioli’s Milan is that Liverpool have shown no inclination to ease up, even with that target achieved. Klopp extended first-team opportunities to several players unused to starting games against Porto two weeks ago. They still won 2-0.
Porto, on five points, cling to second place going into a night where their qualifying spot could be seized by either Atletico Madrid (four points) or Milan (four). The contest to finish runner-up to Liverpool has ebbed and flowed deliciously thanks to Milan’s recovery from a dreadful start.
Having been defeated by 3-2 at Anfield in an opening group fixture that Ibrahimovic missed through injury, Milan lost their next two games. They then drew with Porto, and dramatically seized three points, with a late goal, at Atletico, where Ibrahimovic’s introduction from the bench galvanised a 0-0 stalemate in the second half. A header from Junior Messias - the Brazilian journeyman who emigrated to Italy and worked delivering refrigerators before football earned him a living - kept Milan in the hunt for what would, given Messias’s contribution and the guiding role of a 40-year-old Ibra, be a fairytale landing in the last 16.
Ibrahimovic may have Daniel Maldini, 20 years and a week younger than he is, playing alongside him at some stage on Tuesday. He may be up against Tyler Morton, the Liverpool starlet who wasn’t born when Ibrahimovic played at his first World Cup, in 2002.
But the longevity of ‘Ibra’ has long ceased to provoke awe. Two years ago, Milan reached out to him in an hour of need. He had just finished his spell in America’s MLS. In the period since, he has celebrated two more birthdays, played 39 matches, scored 23 goals at a rate of one every 108 minutes and can now survey the Italian Serie A table with pride. Milan have just moved to the top. They were 12th when he rejoined them in January 2020.
With his contract expiring in June, this could be his last adventure in the Champions League, a competition that Ibrahimovic - who has been a domestic champion in Holland with Ajax; a first-place finisher in Italy with Juventus, Inter Milan and in his first spell at Milan; a Liga winner with Barcelona and a Ligue 1 champion with Paris Saint-Germain - has never won.
Some of his greatest frustrations were caused by Liverpool, who beat his Juventus and his Inter in the knockout phases while he was still in his 20s.
Tuesday’s challenge is all the greater given Milan are missing the injured Olivier Giroud, Ante Rebic and Rafael Leao from their attacking options, and Simon Kjaer from the heart of their defence.
“We will need to be perfect,” said Pioli, “and to move well between the lines, and to be unpredictable. Our attack has to not just hang on Ibra. Others need to help him.”