Relentless Zlatan Ibrahimovic still on trophy trail with AC Milan in the Europa League

Swedish attacker, now 39, set to take on Celtic – the Scottish team against whom he made his European debut in 2001

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On August 8, 2001, Ajax gave a European debut to a tall, young Swede recently signed from Malmo.

The stakes were high. It was a pre-qualifier for the Champions League group stage against Celtic. By the time teenager Zlatan Ibrahimovic came on, the tie was slipping away from the Dutch hosts, who were trailing 2-1.

That night, and again in the second leg of what ended up as a 3-2 aggregate victory for Celtic, Ibrahimovic made a strong impression, not least on a tigerish Celtic midfielder with blond peroxide hair who worked tirelessly to disrupt the opposition’s passing game.

His name was Neil Lennon. His job now, in his 50th year – too ripe an age to be bothered with playful hair dyes – is, as manager, to turn Celtic back into the sort of force in Europe they were when he played for them.

Ibrahimovic entered his 40th year this month. He is far from ready to move into management, although he has plenty of experience galvanising teams, issuing orders, and setting high targets, the next of which is to finish his 21st season as a senior professional with a trophy.

The Europa League, in which Ibrahimovic’s AC Milan take on Lennon’s Celtic in Glasgow, is a viable aim; so, if you look at the Serie A table, is the Italian title, which Milan last won ten seasons ago, when their leading goalscorer was one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Look at the top marksmen in Serie A right now, and there’s another deja vu.

Among the joint leaders on four goals, is Ibrahimovic, who scored twice in Saturday’s 2-1 derby win over Inter Milan. And this after a positive coronavirus test kept him out of half Milan’s league fixtures this season – “Covid-19 dared take me on. Bad idea,” remarked Ibrahimovic, as he served his quarantine.

He has scored a brace in both the matches he has played, meaning Ibrahimovic boasts the most impressive goals-per-minute ratio in the land.

Put it simply Celtic – bruised from their own derby defeat to Rangers at the weekend – must tonight confront a phenomenon, an ageless modern great of the sport.

“One of the best players in the world for the last 20 years,” as Lennon put it. “Zlatan is a huge personality in the game, but he has backed it up throughout his career. At 39, he is still a physical specimen and a class player.”

Lennon recalls vividly those first impressions from almost two decades ago. “I wasn’t really aware of him before those games against Ajax. We all were afterwards. He was superb.”

In Italy, where Ibrahimovic has in his marathon career helped each of Juventus, Inter and Milan finish seasons at the top of Serie A, praise has been showering.


Gallery: Ibrahimovic scores two against Bologna


Fabio Capello, who as manager of Juventus, brought him to Italian football when Ibrahimovic was 22, told Gazzetta dello Sport: "He is a very special player, for the way he combines his huge professionalism with a larger-than-life character. Even at 39 he's not there to simply take part. He's there to win."

And that, says Capello, benefits all those around him. “The younger players look at how hard he drives himself and think, ‘We cannot back down’.”

When Milan took on Ibrahimovic, who had come to the end of his four years with LA Galaxy, in the January 2020 transfer window, they were in crisis, in the bottom half of Serie A and on their third different manager in seven months. And plans were already being made to replace Stefano Pioli with Ralf Rangnick, the scholarly German.

Enter ‘Ibracadabra'. Fortunes turned. Ibrahimovic has been on the losing side just twice in his 20 appearances so far in his second spell at Milan, a club longing for signs of a renaissance – a club with seven European Cups to their name, but without a place in the Champions League for the last seven seasons.

But 2020 looks like a renaissance year. In July, as Milan were compiling what is now a run of 15 wins from 20 unbeaten games, Rangnick was thanked for agreeing to take over and told he was no longer needed.

Pioli looks a better and better fit, happy to let Ibrahimovic claim the headlines, and find ways to channel the Swede’s winning mentality.

Pioli’s simple statement, ahead of the club’s first European fixture since 2018, will be a significant stimulus. “We can win this Europa League,” said the Milan manager.

That is a spur for Ibrahimovic, who has won domestic titles with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain but has only one major medal from a Uefa competition.

That was from United’s 2017 Europa League, a final he missed with injury. His eyes are firmly set on a star role in this campaign, and his body is, apparently, more than willing.