Ibrahimovic still inspires at 38, says Milan teammate Calhanoglu
Milan's players lift their game with veteran Swede around, says Calhanoglu
Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspired AC Milan to an incredible 4-2 comeback win over Serie A leaders Juventus, and then declared that his side would have been Italian champions had he been there the whole season.
"I'm president, coach and player, but I'm only paid as a footballer," Ibrahimovic, who rejoined Milan from LA Galaxy on a six-month contract at the end of December, told broadcaster DAZN after yesterday morning's (Singapore time) game.
"If I had been here from the start, we'd have won the Scudetto."
Those comments brought out a chuckle from teammate Hakan Calhanoglu, who was quick to point out that the talismanic Swede recognises the potential in their young side, who have lost only twice since his arrival.
"He always talks like that, but this is good because it means the team have quality," Calhanoglu, 26, told The New Paper via a Skype interview arranged by Fox Sports yesterday.
Milan registered an average age of 24 years and 125 days at the start of the season, the lowest in Serie A and, at 38, Ibrahimovic is the team's elder statesman whose "lion" personality and leadership have helped improve those around him.
This was in full evidence when the Swede was seen giving advice to teammates, after he had come off against Juventus.
"He's a leader. He is a big player, with a big character. He may be old, but he feels young on the pitch," said Calhanoglu.
"Zlatan always talks about (being a) lion, but he is one in the way he trains and plays. He wants to win every time, even in training. He gets so angry when he loses... because he has won a lot of silverware and is a champion... his passion is incredible, his mentality is so strong.
"This is what we get from him, every player is running (harder) and fighting for the team. Even when he is out of the pitch during games, he would help and guide us."
Ibrahimovic started the comeback yesterday when he scored from the spot in the 62nd minute, after Juve had led 2-0 through goals from Adrien Rabiot and Cristiano Ronaldo.
He then set up Franck Kessie for the equaliser, before Rafael Leao and Ante Rebic secured the win for Milan behind closed doors at the San Siro.
The Rossoneri have now beaten AS Roma, Lazio and Juve since the Serie A restarted following the Covid-19 lockdown, and Calhanoglu felt that these wins against the top-six sides augur well as the sleeping giants move up to fifth on the table.
Milan last lifted the Serie A trophy in 2011, before Juve dominated the Italian scene with eight successive titles and now closing in on their ninth.
"It gives us big confidence because we beat the big teams, and it is not easy to do so," said Calhanoglu, who joined Milan from Bayer Leverkusen in 2017 for 24 million euros (S$37.8m).
"We have to beat these teams because Milan have to be first or second... now people see us win big games, they say this is Milan. Even as players, we say this is Milan. That said, I have been here three years and every year there is something changing...
"I've trained with four coaches, so we need stability... We hope we can bring Milan back to where they belong."
The instability that the Turkey international referenced may well continue after media outlets in Italy and England this week have reported that former RB Leipzig coach and sporting director Ralf Rangnick, 62, is set to become Milan coach and technical director at the end of this season.
But Milan may be without Ibrahimovic by then, after the Swede hinted that he may retire.
"I have a month to have fun, then things happen here that we can't control. I'm sorry for the fans, they may not see me in person any more," he said.
"They could have seen me live for the last time - read between the lines."
*Catch AC Milan's matches on Fox Sports channels. Their next game is against Napoli next Monday (July 13, 3.45am, Singapore time) on Fox Sports 2 (Singtel TV Ch 115 & StarHub TV Ch 209).