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THE FINISH LINE

Evergreen Ibrahimovic adds spice to Milan derby

The 38-year-old Swedish striker wants to thwart rivals Inter-Milan's Serie A title challenge

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AC Milan forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (third from left) attempting to score against Udinese during a Serie A match on Jan 19 at the San Siro stadium in Milan.

Milan

ZLATAN Ibrahimovic's return to AC Milan will add even more spice to the city derby against Inter-Milan on Sunday (Monday 3.45am kick-off, Singapore time), with the 38-year-old Swede looking to thwart Antonio Conte's side from keeping pace with Serie A leaders Juventus.

Ibrahimovic played his first Milan derby as an Inter player 13 years ago, while his last was for rivals AC Milan back in May 2012 when he scored twice.

He was the top scorer that season with 28 goals but Milan still lost the Serie A title to Conte's Juventus, the first in the Turin giants' current run of eight Serie A titles.

The Swede's surprise return to Milan - who he helped to their last Serie A title in 2011 - has proved a boost with his side now eighth in the table, seven points adrift of the Champions League berths.

Big impact

Ibrahimovic has sparked a revival at AC Milan, who are unbeaten since his arrival at the start of January, and raised hopes that they can end their poor recent run against second-placed Inter-Milan, who themselves need all three points to keep the pressure on Juventus. Stefano Pioli's AC Milan were on a three-match winning run with Ibrahimovic in their squad but were held 1-1 by Verona last weekend with their charismatic striker out of action due to the flu.

AC Milan director and chief football officer Zvonomir Boban praised Ibrahimovic's impact, insisting the Swede was pushing to be ready for "a unique derby" at the San Siro Stadium in Milan. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, posted on Twitter a video of himself roaring, with the caption: "Lions don't sound like humans."

The former Manchester United player knows all about the pressures of this fixture, having played in it six times for Inter-Milan between 2006 and 2009, where he was on the winning side four times and scored twice.

Rivalry with Materazzi

After an unhappy stint at Barcelona, Ibrahimovic joined AC Milan. His first derby on the other side of the fence was arguably his most memorable as he scored the only goal and claimed revenge on Inter defender Marco Materazzi for an incident four years earlier.

"Everyone was against me and this motivated me. I won a penalty, and who fouled me? Materazzi. 1-0 to AC Milan," he said in an interview with the Italian edition of GQ magazine in December. "In the second half, I hit (Materazzi) with a Taekwondo move, I sent him to the hospital," added Ibrahimovic, who was still simmering over a tackle by Materazzi on him in 2006 when he played for Juventus. "What goes around, comes around." Despite Ibrahimovic's comments, Materazzi did not suffer serious injury and managed to play for Inter-Milan two weeks later.

Overall, Ibrahimovic played five times in the fixture for AC Milan and his final appearance, in May 2012, was bittersweet.

He scored a double that day but AC Milan still lost 4-2, ending their hopes of winning the league title that season. They have not won a major trophy since.

Inter-Milan have won the last three matches between the sides and have not lost to AC Milan in Serie A for over four years, although they were beaten in the Coppa Italia in the 2017-18 season.

AC Milan suffered a dire season before Ibrahimovic agreed to return for a second stint and were thumped 5-0 by Atalanta in the last game before his arrival. They have won five and drawn two of their seven games since.

"Zlatan has a special personality. He has a special professionalism. He entered the locker room with a special humility," said Boban. "Knowing the force of the impact he can have, it wasn't so easy. But he understood the atmosphere inside the changing room, the delicacy of the moment."

Ibrahimovic aside, Inter-Milan will be relishing the opportunity to notch another big win over their long-term foes. Conte has strengthened his team considerably, and last summer he signed Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez from Manchester United.

Conte again raided the English Premier League during the recent winter break and brought in Christian Eriksen (from Tottenham Hotspur), Ashley Young (Manchester United) and Victor Moses (Chelsea).

"He (Ibrahimovic) will be more used to this type of game, I'm just starting," said Eriksen, who said he was looking forward to taking part in his first Milan derby. Eriksen added: "I've seen it on TV in the past, but playing in it will be very different. Compared to London, I expect a different atmosphere in Milan. Here, the whole stadium sings, there will be so much noise. It will be beautiful." REUTERS, AFP