Ibrahimovic has been A.C. Milan's constant source of inspiration, but could that circumstance now turn against his club in their Scudetto bid?
One wouldn't have to be a close follower of Calcio to know that striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a special player. Now plying his trade with Scudetto holders A.C. Milan, Ibrahimovic has won the league title in every season that he has played in the Italian top flight, an impressive run of six trophies (counting those Juventus were stripped of) since 2005.
The symbol of success at cross-town rivals Internazionale when he played for them, Ibrahimovic further enhanced his reputation as a Scudetto talisman when he helped current club Milan to the title last season, the club's first since 2004. His knack for effortlessly conjuring up the impossible on the field has made him the jewel in the crown for many a side he has played for, but that attribute could now pervertedly come back in an unexpected turn of events to haunt Milan, as they struggle to keep pace with this season's league leaders, Juventus.
An Internet video search would bring the unfamiliar up to speed with what the giant former - Ajax man is capable of. If his first season's goal tally of 14 goals in 29 games was crucial in firing Milan to the Scudetto, then his 23 goals this season, and counting, are absolutely pivotal to their title charge.
It is this statistic however that could prove to be the club's undoing. Such is Ibrahimovic's ability to virtually pull a rabbit out of the hat that he can, and has, almost singlehandedly dragged his sides, past and present, along with him, none more apparent than this season. In essence, he gets Milan the immediate results, but such is the aplomb with which he goes about doing it that his teammates can't help but look like they're making an easy job of a game, when in actual it may not be the most accurate representation.
The reality is, the cracks and deficiencies in a team are plastered over by the sheer moments of brilliance the Swede produces, especially against the minnows. Taking that into account, how good for Milan is Ibrahimovic really? Milan's stroll to the title last season lulled the club into a false sense of security, evident in this season's transfer windows, when talk of signing a Mr. X (later revealed to be Napoli's Marek Hamsik) and Manchester City's Carlos Tevez came to nothing. Perhaps excusable due to an impossibility to summon the massive resources required to complete either signing, Ibrahimovic's ability to make his side look good has fatally allowed the team to degenerate for too long without renewal, as 35-year old Mark van Bommel clearly displayed when dispossessed of the ball on the way to Bologna's goal in Milan's disappointing 1-1 weekend draw at home.
Such scenarios are not without precedent. Roberto Mancini's final season as Inter Milan coach in 2008 saw reality hit home full there too, also at the wrong time; that they were not built from a team level to win with the consistency required to win the Scudetto - Ibrahimovic merely flattered the side and camouflaged their flaws till they became so evident, they had to show up. Mancini managed to scrape through and win the title ahead of close competitors A.S. Roma, but it wasn't enough to save his job as President Massimo Moratti promptly hired Jose Mourinho in his stead. Mourinho's second season at Internazionale saw Ibrahimovic depart for F.C. Barcelona, proving life after him was very possible as Inter grew into a more holistically complete side. The additions of Wesley Sneijder and Samuel Eto'o to their squad created a collective equilibrium that ensured each component of the team could still function if the other happened to be missing, allowing for a modular approach to be employed.
By their own hand, Milan have allowed Juventus to play catch-up. At a time when the champions should be mounting a final sprint for the title instead of stuttering, they find themselves now having to grudgingly accept that they have been outwitted by the transfer policies of the Bianconeri, who have intelligently focused on quantity, building a solid spine for the team, before quality. This in turn ensures the side does not become 'top-heavy' when champions are thrown into the mix to bring another dimension of technical ability in the future.
Not aided by their injuries, Milan's legion of 30-year olds are all but out of steam going into this late stage. This edition of the Scudetto can be remembered for having been won as much in the transfer market as on the playing field; Milan, for too long, have been blinded by Ibrahimovic's magic and have failed to spot their deficiencies. They now pay the price for a familiar lack of clairvoyance and foresight that has plagued the teams the mercurial Swede has played for.