Ibrahimovic double defeats Cagliari as Milan restore three-point lead at the top

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice on his first Serie A start since returning from injury to help Milan restore their three-point lead at the top with a 2-0 win at Cagliari.

The 39-year-old forward has been absent since picking up a thigh injury in Milan’s win at Napoli on 22 November. He returned as a substitute against Torino in the Coppa Italia last week, but was fit enough to start in Sardinia and wasted no time in getting back among the goals.

Ibrahimovic won a penalty in the seventh minute after latching on to Brahim Díaz’s through ball and going down under Charalampos Lykogiannis’ challenge. The evergreen Swede converted the spot kick to earn an early lead for Milan, who were missing Hakan Calhanoglu and Theo Hernández after positive Covid-19 tests.

Davide Calabria went close with two efforts from distance in the first half, drawing a fine save from Alessio Cragno before hitting the post with his second attempt. Ibrahimovic doubled Milan’s lead in the second half after running on to Calabria’s pass. The striker was initially flagged offside, but the VAR overturned the decision and awarded the goal.

Ibrahimovic’s double takes his Serie A goal tally to 12 for the season from just seven starts. It is little wonder that Milan are reportedly prepared to extend his contract beyond his 40th birthday in October. Victory moves Milan three points clear of Internazionale, who had pulled level on points with their 2-0 win over Juventus on Sunday.

“We think about giving our best every match, the season has been like this,” the Milan manager, Stefano Pioli, said afterwards. “I always ask my players for attention, we must all be ready, [and] we were. We faced a test of strength, we deservedly won.”

Pioli also confirmed the imminent signing of Mario Mandzukic, who is set to arrive from Qatari club Al-Duhail. Ibrahimovic said of the Croatian’s arrival: ““I’m happy, we now have two [forwards] that scare our opponents.”

“We are doing well, we are almost halfway through the season. Now, the most difficult games are starting,” said Ibrahimovic, who was supported in attack by two 21-year-olds in Díaz and Jens Petter Hauge. “Young people motivate me, they challenge me,” he added. “I don’t give up and show that I can run like them.”

The only disappointing aspect to an otherwise comfortable night was the late dismissal of substitute Alexis Saelemaekers, for two yellow cards picked up in quick succession. The Belgian now faces a suspension along with defender Alessio Romagnoli, who was booked in Sardinia.

Milan now have a 10-point lead over Juventus as they seek their first scudetto since the 2010-11 season. Cagliari are now without a win in their last 11 league games and stay in 17th, just one point above the relegation zone.