Could Zlatan Ibrahimovic end up back as Milan's star striker this summer?
Silvio Berlusconi expressed his opinion last month about what Milan are lacking. "We need three strong attacking players," he said, "and we're on the lookout for them." In the meantime, chief executive Adriano Galliani has taken steps toward satisfying the owner's demands. The club has signed Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano. Both are centre-forwards. Both also led the line as lone frontmen at Sevilla and Shakhtar.
Expected to play 4-3-1-2 next season -- a system Sinisa Mihajlovic achieved success with at Samp and one that Berlusconi appreciates because it accommodates a No. 10, the position he adores -- a lively debate is already being had about their suitability and compatibility. Can they play together? Will they play together?
If last summer was about giving Milan wings, this one so far has been about clipping them. Mihajlovic's system is a narrow one, which presents a problem. Jeremy Menez excelled as a false 9 last season. He was Milan's top scorer with 16 goals. But the role no longer exists under Mihajlovic. Will Menez compete with Bacca and Adriano for a place as a second striker, like Alessio Cerci, or instead be asked to pull the strings behind them?
And what of Keisuke Honda? He was used out wide last term. Might he challenge Menez for a place in the hole? Giacomo Bonaventura and Suso also have their mind set on persuading Mihajlovic to make that position their own.
If you haven't got the idea already, Milan are very top-heavy with players who are either too similar or no longer of use. This is what happens when you build a team for one coach and then rip up those plans nine months later to start again with another who has a completely different outlook on how the game should be played.
Stephan El Shaarawy has been sold to Monaco after being told he would have to change positions and become a midfielder if he were to have a chance of first-team football at Milan ahead of Euro 2016. Others will surely be forced to follow him out the door. Milan will play in Serie A and the Coppa Italia next season. They're not in Europe, and as such there simply aren't enough games to go around to keep everyone happy.
While the attention has belatedly turned to upgrading the defence, Berlusconi refuses to dismiss speculation that Milan, as per his recommendation, could still do with another striker. Well, one in particular: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
ESPN FC PROFILES: ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC (PSG)
Viewed as one of the world's best (and most temperamental) strikers, Ibrahimovic has won league titles with six of the seven clubs he's played for: Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona and PSG. And he has a black belt in taekwondo, too. Profile »
Asked at Mihajlovic's unveiling if Ibra could be a gift to Milan's fans, Berlusconi smiled and said: "Above all, he would be a present to myself." Visiting the EXPO on Monday, Milan's president was begged for an update by a supporter. "Will you sign him?" he inquired.
"If he'll come, sure," Berlusconi answered. Milan's interest was once again confirmed. His words also indicated that the ball is in Ibrahimovic's court.
The player had poured cold water on the idea of a return before Sweden's last round of Euro 2016 qualifiers. "I belong to PSG. I still have a year on my current contract. Then again, you never know what can happen. But this is the current situation. I don't know where these stories are coming from. I think people must need to write something."
Within seconds, however, he reheated it, revealing: "I often talk to Galliani. We didn't speak for a while after I left Milan, but then we got in touch again." Ibra went on to say: "Playing in the Champions League isn't so important. I prefer playing for a team that I like and can have fun playing in." What a tease.
PSG, for their part, have been less ambiguous. "There has never been any problem," president Nasser al-Khelaifi said in June. "PSG want to keep him and Zlatan wants to stay." PSG coach Laurent Blanc told Le Parisien this week, "For me, there has never been any doubt regarding his presence in the 2015-16 squad."
End of story? Well, not exactly. There's an argument to be made that Ibrahimovic has served his purpose at PSG. He gave the club credibility, ensured it would to be taken seriously and provided a reason for other big names to follow. He was bought to win the league and keep PSG at the top. Job done. After leading the club to their first title in close to two decades, in 2013, they have been French champions ever since.
Phase one of the Qataris' plans for the club is complete, and the impression is that they are preparing for Phase 2. Reflecting on last season, it was the first in which you felt PSG were capable of coping without Zlatan. That might sound ridiculous considering he scored 30 goals in all competitions, but for the first time since moving to France, he surrendered his player of the year crown and didn't finish as top scorer. Both honors went to Lyon's Alexandre Lacazette.
Of course, Ibrahimovic missed 14 league games, but Lacazette also had a spell out with injury, and that's when Lyon's title challenge began to fade. By contrast, PSG appeared to do as well (if not better) in Ibra's absence. For the first time since he moved to Paris, the team's win percentage for the season was higher without the Swede (70 percent) than it was with him (62 percent).
Other players stepped out of his shadow and into the limelight. Javier Pastore finally began to justify the €42 million PSG paid for him, particularly when Ibra wasn't in the team. "I'm a No. 10," he once said, "but when Ibra plays, he occupies that space."
Cavani scored 30 goals in all competitions. He struck a brace in the Coupe de la Ligue final (as did Ibrahimovic) and got the only goal in the Coupe de France final to bring the curtain down on his most successful season in France. As PSG's top scorer in the Champions League with six goals, Cavani was the one who equalised against Chelsea in the first leg at the Parc des Princes. Recall how PSG also qualified for the quarterfinals in spite of Ibra. Sent off after a half-hour, he was a spectator as they put in what felt like a breakthrough performance for this team to come back at Stamford Bridge; it was a defining display and the best by a French team in Europe for years.
France Football summed it up well: Ibra is "superfluous in Ligue 1 and insufficient in the Champions League," wrote Patrick Sowden. Once untouchable, his image has also suffered. In the process of releasing a fragrance, Ibra no longer smells quite so good to the French after his outburst about the country following a defeat to Bordeaux.
So is it time to move on? Ibra has never stayed longer than three years at one club. He will be 34 in October, and even with the relaxation of financial fair play, you can understand why PSG are reticent about committing more time and money to a player whose age is catching up with him. His contract is due to expire next summer, and a trip to Doha didn't yield a new one. Milan are said to be willing to offer him either a two-year deal worth €9 million per year, or a three-year deal at around €6 million per year.
It's up to Ibra and PSG. If Blanc gets his way and signs Angel Di Maria (without sending Cavani to Old Trafford in exchange), then maybe Ibra will receive the club's blessing to go to Milan. Mind you, PSG might bide their time and wait a year when they might be more confident of replacing Ibra with a star of a similar profile, the dream being Cristiano Ronaldo.
Milan appear to be hoping the former scenario will be enough to provoke a separation with PSG and a reunion with them. "We will wait and see what happens," Galliani said. "Ibra is the only one with a license to kill [in Serie A]." Kill the title race, he means.
Ibra is perceived in Italy as the ultimate quick fix. His name is synonymous if not interchangeable with the word Scudetto; he won it every year apart from his final one in Italy. Buying him would bring the fans to San Siro again -- he has far greater star power and ability to relaunch the brand than Bacca and Adriano -- and Milan believe he is the fastest route back to reclaiming the championship they last won when he still wore their shirt.
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Were it to present itself, this opportunity would appear to override the impracticalities of signing three top centre-forwards in one window and the incongruent vision for the club that Berlusconi shared at the beginning of the summer. He wanted a young and Italian team; instead, he has extended the contracts of Nigel de Jong and Philippe Mexes (both foreign and in their 30s) and might add a veteran Swede to a Colombian and Brazilian pair of strikers, while bidding farewell to El Shaarawy. But, hey, we stopped expecting Milan to make sense years ago, right?
Milan intend to play the long game for Ibra. The papers in Italy are calling it a "marathon." It will likely come down to the last days of the window, just as it did in 2010 when he joined from Barcelona after the season had already started. Naturally, he then led Milan to their first title in years.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.