The youngest squad in Serie A has propelled AC Milan to a surprise title challenge this season but according to midfielder Ismael Bennacer, the Rossoneri’s oldest player Zlatan Ibrahimovic is largely to thank for their transformation.
The Swede returned to his former club in January 2020 aged 38 and sparked a turnaround in form for the seven-time European champions, who have not won Serie A since 2011.
Milan lost two league matches in 2020 and enjoyed a 27-match unbeaten run. They bore little resemblance to the inconsistent side that suffered a 5-0 defeat at Atalanta in their final game of 2019.
Ibrahimovic, now 39, is Milan’s top scorer this season with 15 goals in 15 league games but Bennacer, 16 years his junior, believes the striker’s influence off the pitch has been pivotal.
“Everyone knows him, his mentality – he’s a winner,” Bennacer told Reuters. “Maybe we didn’t have this experience that he brought with him. It’s good for us young players because we improved in this. Now we want to win like he wants to win.
“Our level is better even at training. In training, we want to win, and he brought that.”
Milan have suffered a dip in form recently, winning three of their last 11 games in all competitions, but they are not yet out of a title race they led for much of the season.
Stefano Pioli’s second-placed side welcome Sampdoria to San Siro on Saturday, six points behind leaders Inter Milan, although their city rivals have a game in hand.
“We have to be proud of what we are doing,” said Algeria international Bennacer.
“But there are still 10 games until the end of May and if we don’t do well everyone will forget everything we did before. Every game has to be like the last for us.”
Bennacer recently returned from a lengthy battle with a muscle injury that restricted him to three league games in almost four months.
“It was hard because it was the first big injury of my career. I didn’t know what to do, how to think. But everything that happens in life, I will stay positive,” he said.
Fitness problems have plagued Milan during a season with an unusually packed schedule, the result of a late start caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and Bennacer acknowledged that the relentless run of fixtures had required a different approach.
“Even if we played every day I would want to play. But it’s true, I’ve never played every three days in my career,” he said.
“To play two or three times a week is a little bit different for me and my body. You must recover better, eat better, sleep better. You have to do everything better.”
Bennacer has become a linchpin in the Milan midfield since his 2019 move from Empoli, continuing an impressive career trajectory.
The playmaker was on Arsenal’s books from 2015-2017 and spent half a season on loan in the French second tier with Tours, but opted to leave London for Serie B due to limited opportunities.
“I went to France for six months, I did well. Then I came back, and I saw that (then-Arsenal manager Arsene) Wenger didn’t think about me, he didn’t come to me to play with the first team,” he said.
“I still had three more years on my contract when I left, but I needed to play. It was a big risk for me. But in your career, you have to take risks.
“I knew if I played, I was going to show my quality and improve. That’s why I did it. That’s why today I’m at Milan.
“I love Italian football, I love how they play and I’ve improved a lot here.
“I’m a challenger, so maybe I’ll have to try another championship. But for now, I’m good at Milan, we have a good project and I’m happy to be here.”