Ibrahimovic boosts Pioli as coach confirms striker is fit enough for Milan start
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in contention to start for Milan against Udinese on Saturday as the 41-year-old looks to lift Stefano Pioli's' struggling champions.
The striker, recalled by Sweden this week, has recovered from major knee surgery and come through three substitute appearances.
Now the veteran is a prime contender to line up from the first whistle as Milan are forced to cope without the suspended Olivier Giroud in their last game before the international break.
Ibrahimovic is already the oldest player to feature for Milan in a Serie A game during the three-points-for-a-win era (since 1994-95), and Pioli would have no doubts about his readiness.
"Zlatan is calm; he wants to play and win every game," Pioli said on Friday. "He's feeling good, but I don't think he's got 90 minutes in him. He could start, as could Divock [Origi] and Ante [Rebic]."
Ibrahimovic has been involved in five goals in his last four games against Udinese in Serie A (3 goals, 2 assists) and is looking to start a game in Serie A for the first time since January 23, 2022, when he faced Juventus.
Winger Rafael Leao should keep his place despite what Pioli described as a "strange situation" on Monday, when the Portugal international put in a flat performance in the 1-1 draw with Salernitana, a result that followed defeat to Fiorentina in Milan's previous league game.
Coach Pioli is surprised by how little impact Leao is having at times, but he expects him to come good.
"Rafa is training really well. He's very motivated and determined, and he remains an important figure in our attack because, even if he's not scoring, he keeps opposition defences occupied," Pioli said.
"My advice to him would be to stay close to those who care deeply for him and want to help him grow. Goals and decisive pieces of play are expected from him, but, as previously mentioned, he's dangerous even when he doesn't score."
Ibrahimovic was left off Milan's Champions League squad list, so Pioli must plan without him for the quarter-final against runaway Serie A leaders Napoli.
That was the match-up that came out of Friday's draw, and it is not one that intimidates the Rossoneri, who have won Europe's premier club competition seven times.
Quoted on Milan's official website, Pioli said: "Napoli are enjoying a great league campaign, but the Champions League is the Champions League and AC Milan are AC Milan. It's exciting and fascinating and our opponents are very strong, but we're deservedly part of it and have plenty of motivation and ambition.
"We'll play with the aim of making it through. We'll have time to talk about the Champions League, which is certainly an objective of ours, but, right now, doing well in our next three league games is crucial."
Milan sit fourth in Serie A, a point ahead of Roma who have a derby against third-placed Lazio coming up on Sunday.
Dropping points to mid-table Udinese would be a jarring way to enter the international break for the San Siro giants.
"It's not the break itself that will be important but how we head into it," said Pioli, "meaning tomorrow's result will be vital."