As one new era dawns, so another one draws to a close. On Sunday Juventus served notice to all of Europe by claiming their first Scudetto since Calciopoli, secured without a single defeat. In the process, they also ensured Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have to go without a league winners’ medal for the first time since 2003.
“I am not used to not winning,” Ibrahimovic told reporters after Juve had sealed the title with a week to spare. Over the eight preceding seasons he had played for five clubs—Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan—spread across three different leagues, but always with the same result. As his present employers closed in on the Scudetto last year, Gazzetta dello Sport’s Alessandra Bocci quipped: “Serie A is a tournament in which various teams compete. Then at the end Zlatan Ibrahimovic wins.”
Not any more. Defeat to Inter in the Milan derby on Sunday, combined with a Juventus win against Cagliari, has left the Rossoneri four points behind the league leaders with only one game left to play. Ibrahimovic did not take the disappointment well. “I want to respect my contract, but Milan have to tell us [players] what they want to do,” said the Swede. “There used to be a great Milan project, now we’ll have to see if they take it forward. I am very disappointed. This was a great failure.”
Such frustration was certainly understandable. The striker’s recent assertion that “like a good wine, I get better with age” was easy to poke fun at, yet the statistics bear him out. So far this campaign he has contributed 35 goals across all competitions, comfortably the best return of his career and more than either Andriy Shevchenko or Marco Van Basten managed in their best seasons at Milan. With one game left to play he is just three shy of the club record held by Gunnar Nordahl.
To perform at such a level and still walk away from with nothing more than the preseason SuperCup has cut Ibrahimovic deep. A shameless braggart he may be, but the player had nevertheless taken pride in being able to back up such words with actions, likening his approach in his autobiography last year to that of Muhammad Ali. Like him or loathe him, there is no question Ibrahimovic had kept his side of the bargain. Even in Sunday’s 4-2 defeat to Inter, he got both of Milan’s goals.
This is not the first time Ibrahimovic has gone public with his grievances at Milan this season, having questioned Massimiliano Allegri’s tactics after the Rossoneri nearly threw away a 4-0 lead in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Arsenal. This time though, his frustrations were not directed at the manager—whom he said still had the backing of the team—as much as the club itself. Ibrahimovic, like many supporters, is concerned about what comes next.
Having reported losses of €67m for the year 2011, Milan must find ways this summer to reduce spending, both in order to meet Uefa’s Financial Fair Play requirements and for the sake of the owner. Silvio Berlusconi’s holding company, Fininvest, covered the losses for 2011, but even the former prime minister’s business empire is not immune to the hostile economic climate. Repeated losses on such a scale could not be sustained indefinitely.
With 10 first-team squad members’ contracts set to expire, the club will aim to make savings by both allowing some to leave and extending others’ deals on reduced terms, but it is possible a high-profile sale may also be required. Alexandre Pato would be an obvious candidate, following his near-departure to Paris St-Germain in January, but Barcelona’s persistent interest in Thiago Silva has led to fears the club could agree to sell the centre-back who has emerged as the best in the division.
Ibrahimovic himself was reported to have been received a text message from José Mourinho last month asking if he might consider switching to Real Madrid. What happened next should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone getting carried away with a heady transfer rumour this summer. According to the reports which first appeared in Spain, the striker had replied in the affirmative; a day later Gazzetta dello Sport ran the same story, but in their version Ibrahimovic rejected his former manager’s advances.
Only Mourinho and Ibrahimovic themselves may know the real truth of the matter, but what we can say is that the player has thus far always spoken positively about his life in Milan, telling the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that “I want to stay here…they treat me in the best way possible”. He and his wife Helena were reported to have been looking at houses around the city precisely in the hopes of finding a place settle in long-term.
That is not to say things can’t change, of course, and Ibrahimovic had insisted he was “as happy at Inter as the day I arrived” just weeks before he left for Barcelona. But as much as the club’s ambition in the transfer market, what he needs to be convinced of is their ability to resolve a greater underlying problem with injuries. A report published by Gazzetta dello Sport on 24 March showed that after 28 games Milan’s players had already missed a combined 218 games through injury, by some distance the most of any team in the division.
“It should not ever happen that a big team constantly has to do without 14-15 players out of a squad of 30,” said Ibrahimovic following Milan’s derby defeat. “If we had a full team, we would have had an excellent chance of winning the Scudetto. Instead, injuries have followed us for the whole season.”
This was not the first time he had aired such grievances, the player having engaged at different points in the season in stand-up arguments with the team’s head fitness coach Daniele Tognaccini. Indeed, the player has raised the matter directly with the club’s owner Silvio Berlusconi, who has in turn called for a full review. A number of staff members were replaced in the medical department following a similar spate of injuries last year, but now it is Tognaccini’s staff who are expected to come under scrutiny.
The club hopes the issue can be at least partly resolved by improving the playing surface at San Siro, a long-standing area of concern which was highlighted further when Barcelona issued a formal complain to Uefa following their Champions League quarter-final there in March. Ever since the stadium was expanded ahead of the 1990 World Cup a combination of lack of light and poor air circulation over the pitch has made it hard for grass to grow properly and resulted in a loose surface on which players often struggle to keep their footing.
Both Milan and Inter hope this will be resolved by the introduction of a partially artificial surface—as used by Novara and Cesena this season—in which real grass is sewn into a synthetic base. Staff will begin laying the new pitch is immediately after a Madonna concert on 14 June.
Whether or not that will prove a successful venture remains to be seen, but if there is a lesson to be learned from this season’s title race then it is that you are best off avoiding put all your eggs in one basket. There is no such thing as a sure thing—not even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.