The Swede did not come out on to the pitch for the second half – but his head coach insists it was all part of the plan
Milan boss Stefano Pioli insists it was a pre-planned decision to substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic at half-time of their 3-0 Europa League victory against Sparta Prague.
After Brahim Diaz’s opener, Ibrahimovic missed the chance to double Milan’s lead when his 36th-minute spot-kick hit the crossbar, one of three shots without hitting the target during the opening period.
He was subsequently replaced at the break by Rafael Leao, who did double Milan’s advantage in the second period before Diogo Dalot sealed a comfortable victory.
Pioli, however, insists the decision to remove Ibrahimovic at that point had been made before the game and not influenced by his performance.
“We had already planned the substitution,” he told Sky Sport Italia. “Zlatan is a champion and probably wanted to continue, but we have another very difficult match coming up on Sunday, so it was only right to balance out our efforts.”
Pioli made five changes to the side that drew 3-3 with Roma in Serie A at the weekend as Milan went on to claim their ninth win from 10 games – including one penalty shoot-out – across all competitions this season.
The Rossoneri return to domestic action on Sunday with a trip to Udinese and Pioli says he is finding it tough to cram so many in-form players into his side.
“The team knows what it has to do on the pitch and how to read the games,” he added.
“We were coming off a good performance against Roma where we could’ve done better in controlling the situation. Today we made the most of the spaces that were allowed.
“I must admit, it becomes increasingly difficult to choose the starting XI, as everyone is doing so well.
“The lads work in such a unified fashion and that is the attitude that makes me want to pick them. We wanted strength in depth, so it’s only right that we make the most of it.”
Sandro Tonali was particularly impressive in midfield, completing more passes (72) than any other Milan player and gaining possession a team-high 10 times.
Pioli was delighted with his display and believes the 20-year-old is starting to find his feet at San Siro.
“Sandro Tonali made two steps forward in his performance this evening,” he said. “It was inevitable he’d take a while to settle as he arrived after pre-season, so I am very satisfied with the way he is growing into the team and finding form.
“He’s perfect for creating competition for places.”