Milan mean business with Mandžukic signing

January 22, 2021
Mario Mandzukic attends his first training session at the Milanello Milan’s sport centre  in Carnago, Italy, on Tuesday, January 19.
Mario Mandzukic attends his first training session at the Milanello Milan’s sport centre in Carnago, Italy, on Tuesday, January 19.

ROME (AP):

The missing piece for AC Milan in their decade-long quest to return to glory - and financial stability - could prove to be a 34-year-old striker who hasn't played in nearly a year.

Mario Mandzukic's signing this week is tantamount to a statement of title intentions.

Hitherto having maintained that their goal was returning to the Champions League after a seven-year absence by securing only a top-four finish, Milan now appear firmly set on winning Serie A.

And standing three points clear of city rival Inter Milan nearing the season's midpoint, why not?

It's just that having exceeded expectations all season - for all of 2020 actually, or since Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned last January - it's been a slow process in terms of building the belief that a title run is possible.

Juventus have ruled Serie A for nine consecutive seasons, and Milan have finished no better than fifth over the past seven years.

Whereas hedge fund owner Elliott Management has for the most part prioritised signing younger players on the rise with bright financial prospects, Mandzukic is a veteran scorer looking for one last turn in the spotlight.

"The history of Milan tells us to be ambitious and get back to where we should be," Milan coach Stefano Pioli said. "His arrival goes in that direction. ... He's an extra weapon."

Mandzukic knows Italian football, having scored 44 goals in 162 appearances for Juventus, before spending last season in Qatar with league champions Al-Duhail. He could perform as a reserve for the 39-year-old Ibrahimovic or play together with the Swede in a supporting role.

"There will be two of us to scare the opponents now," Ibrahimovic said.

Hasn't played since March

At his presentation on Thursday, Mandzukic brushed off concerns about his form, even though he hasn't played an official match since March.

"I've worked hard recently," Mandzukic said. "I feel good. My body can deal with any sort of exertion. And I can play another four years at a high level. Don't worry, I'm in form."

Milan are also reportedly in talks to sign centre back Fikayo Timori from Chelsea and left back Junior Firpo from Barcelona, with midfielder Soualiho Meite recently loaned in from Torino.

"We are almost halfway through the league and now the games are starting to be more difficult," Ibrahimovic said after scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Cagliari on Monday. "It will be a very tough season. But now with Mandzukic and Meite - and I don't know if others will arrive - we will have more players available for the coach to rotate in."

By winning Serie A, Milan could grab millions more in Champions League money from UEFA - funds that are desperately needed to provide relief from financial fair play sanctions that resulted in Milan voluntarily withdrawing from last season's Europa League.

Mandzukic could make his Milan debut against Atalanta on Saturday, with the team needing only one point to secure the mostly meaningless halfway title.

Then he could be of even more use three days later in a derby with Inter in the Italian Cup quarter-finals.

"Looking at the schedule, there will be some rotation as we'll need to preserve energy, not run risks or have too many injuries," Pioli said. "Having some extra choices is important. I'm happy with the club's choice."

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