Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to Milan’s Serie A starting line-up with both goals in a 2-0 win at Cagliari that restored their three-point lead over Inter at the summit.
Antonio Conte’s side pulled level with the Rossoneri thanks to their impressive victory over champions Juventus in Sunday’s Derby d’Italia.
But Ibrahimovic is inspiring Milan’s title bid with a prolific fervour and marked his first league start since November in style.
A seventh-minute penalty and a crisp half-volley early in the second period took the 39-year-old’s tally to a remarkable 12 goals in just eight Serie A appearances this term.
Milan finished with 10 men as substitute Alexis Saelemaekers ludicrously collected two bookings within eight minutes of his 66th-minute introduction but fourth-bottom Cagliari could not avert a fifth straight Serie A loss.
Brahim Diaz tore at the Cagliari defence and slid a pass into Ibrahimovic’s path, when a panicked Charalampos Lykogiannis clumsily shoved the veteran striker to ground in the box. He made no mistake for 12 yards, sending Alessio Cragno the wrong way.
Cagliari probed and asked questions throughout the first half but Milan almost doubled their advantage in the 37th minute when Davide Calabria swivelled to thump a left-footed shot against the post from 18 yards.
Calabria was involved when Milan doubled their lead six minutes after half-time, with Ibrahimovic clinically sweeping home his raking pass left footed. The assistant referee flagged but a VAR review saw the goal given.
Gianluigi Donnarumma sprung into action after the hour, standing firm to deny Giovanni Simeone when Joao Pedro’s clever reverse pass released the Argentine.
Donnarumma’s opposite number Cragno then saved in similarly impressive fashion as Ibrahimovic looked for his hat-trick.
Saelemaekers’ shambolic cameo left Milan with a tricky conclusion to negotiate, with Donnarumma saving brilliantly from Alberto Cerri’s header after Brahim was fortunate to escape punishment for a risky challenge on Riccardo Sottil in the box.
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) January 18, 2021
What does it mean? Milan going nowhere
The contrast between Milan being overmatched in their 3-1 loss to Juventus at the start of January and Inter swatting Andrea Pirlo’s men aside was stark and hinted at where the power might truly lie if a Milanese fight for supremacy comes to pass. But Stefano Pioli’s team are made of stern stuff and offered an assured response here with their evergreen superstar to the fore.
Ibrahimovic returned from hamstring and calf injuries to make a five-minute cameo against Torino before completing a half against the same opponents in the Coppa Italia. Following no ill-effects, he was razor sharp from the off in Sardinia and two goals from five attempts preserved an astonishing scoring record this season.
Who’s a Saele boy then?
Returning from injury on top form is not a given, however, as Saelemaekers showed on his first appearance of 2021. A foul on Gabriele Zappa meant he was in the book two minutes and six seconds after entering the field and referee Rosario Abisso looked a touch sheepish when a pull back on Luca Ceppitelli left him with no choice but to brandish his red card.
Key Opta facts
– Milan have equalled their best unbeaten streak away from home in Serie A in the three-points-for-a-win era (since 1994-95): 16 matches between September 2003 and April 2004. They have scored in 19 consecutive away league games, matching a club best set between March 1992 and April 1993.
– Ibrahimovic has found the net in nine successive starts for the first time in Europe’s top five leagues. He has already bettered his Serie A goals tally of 10 from last season, despite playing 10 fewer games than the 18 he featured in during the second half of 2019-20.
– Milan have scored nine penalties in 2020-21, a joint-record in the top five European leagues alongside Strasbourg. No team in those divisions has won more than the Rossoneri’s 12 spot kicks.
– This is the second time in as many seasons that Saelemaekers has been sent off after coming on as a substitute, following bookings in the 85th and 88th minutes during a 2-2 draw at Napoli last July. He was at least introduced at half-time on that occasion.
Milan host Atalanta on Saturday, where they will be without Alessio Romagnoli after their captain picked up a fifth booking of the season for fouling Simeone. Cagliari face a potentially pivotal trip to fellow strugglers Genoa on Sunday.