MILAN — Champions League glory has always eluded Zlatan Ibrahimovic, despite a glittering CV that has seen him play for Europe’s biggest clubs for 20 remarkable years. And now, following AC Milan’s 2-1 defeat against Liverpool in San Siro, the 40-year-old might just have played his last game in the competition.
Milan may be on the road back to success, but time has caught up with Ibrahimovic. Yet another Mohamed Salah goal — the Egypt international has now scored in seven successive Champions League away games — and a Divock Origi header sealed Liverpool’s win following Fikayo Tomori’s 29th minute opener and ensured they finished on top of Group B with a 100% record.
– Champions League group stage: How every team finished
– Champions League round-of-16 draw: Seedings, date, details
But this was a night when Milan needed to summon the spirit of their great teams — peerless Champions League-winning sides — and they needed Ibrahimovic to roll back the years and inspire them to victory.
In the end, the former Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United forward looked like a fading star with nothing left to offer and with his flickering dream of Champions League success finally extinguished.
“That is football,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said. “We try to organise a team to stop him [Ibrahimovic] getting the ball he wants. We defended exceptionally well.”
Milan, the leaders of Serie A, had gone into the game with an outside chance of reaching the Champions League knock-out stages for the first time since the 2013-14 season, but Stefano Pioli’s team needed to win and hope that FC Porto failed to beat Atletico Madrid in Estadio do Dragao.
The second part of the equation came to fruition with Atleti winning 3-1 in Portugal, but Milan couldn’t take care of their own business, despite going ahead through Tomori. The defeat against Jurgen Klopp’s team left them bottom of the group, without even a Europa League campaign in the second half of the season to look forward to.
That Milan were even in the position of being able to qualify was an achievement in itself having lost their first three games before drawing the fourth. But it was a false hope for the seven-time European champions.
Even though Klopp had made eight changes from the side which won at Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League at the weekend, Liverpool were still far too strong for the Rossoneri, who lacked pace and invention.
And while Milan had the passionate backing of a noisy Curva Sud inside the San Siro, and aside from glimpses of flair from midfielder Sandro Tonali, Milan were distinctly second-best. The Milan Ultras, understanding that Pioli’s team is at the start of its journey rather than approaching its end, stayed with their side and refused to turn negative. They know that some kind of good times are returning and that a first Scudetto since 2011 is a genuine prospect this season.
But with his contract due to expire next June — four months short of his 41st birthday — Ibrahimovic won’t be around if Milan become a European force again in the near future. It is always a dangerous game to write Ibrahimovic off and suggest that he has faced the final curtain, but it is a safe bet that he has now signed off from the Champions League with 49 goals in 128 appearances.
He is not even close to the incredible Champions League goalscoring tallies of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and would dearly love to have won just one of the nine European Cups those two icons have won between them and add to the 31 honours he has accumulated during his career. For many years, Ibrahimovic was third — a distant one, all the same — in world football’s superstar hierarchy behind Ronaldo and Messi, and his legacy will be one of remarkable consistency and supreme fitness.
But against Liverpool, he was a shadow of his old self. Ibrahimovic struggled to win physical battles against Ibrahima Konate and Nathaniel Phillips and his lack of movement saw him stick firmly the central third of the pitch. No player who completed the 90 minutes made fewer touches than Ibrahimovic’s 31. There was one flash of the old Zlatan, in the 84th minute, when he attempted an overhead kick from Franck Kessie’s cross, but it was a mistimed connection and Liverpool’s goal wasn’t threatened.
It was at the other end of the pitch where the stars really shone, with Salah and Sadio Mane constantly hurting Milan with the pace and movement that Ibrahimovic can no longer provide. Salah and Mane, of course, already have a Champions League winners’ medal in their collection following Liverpool’s success in 2019. Klopp’s team could win the competition again this season and nobody will want to face them between now and the final in Saint Petersburg next May.
Ibrahimovic may have a Serie A winners’ medal by that stage — potentially his fifth Italian title — but the Champions League isn’t happening. Zlatan isn’t getting his Last Dance.