Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is relishing the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Old Trafford after being blown away by the late-career rejuvenation of the Swedish great.
Manchester United and Milan were drawn together in the Europa League last 16 on Friday, giving the second-tier competition a glamour tie.
A serious knee ligament injury sustained in April 2017, near the end of his first season with Manchester United, raised doubts about whether Ibrahimovic would play at the highest level again. He got fit enough to make a first-team return before heading off to LA Galaxy, seemingly to wind down his career in the United States.
Yet Ibrahimovic was not finished with European football and in December 2019 embarked on a second spell with Milan, which has surpassed the most generous of expectations.
Ibrahimovic has scored 27 goals in 40 games so far for the Rossoneri, including 16 in 20 appearances this season to help Milan mount a title challenge. In doing so, the 39-year-old has passed the 500-goal mark in his club career.
Milan’s lead in the Scudetto race was reined in by Inter, who now lead the way in Serie A, but Ibrahimovic’s impact has been seismic in Italy.
United loanee Diogo Dalot, who has played 19 games for Milan this season, may also be heading back to Manchester for the March 11 first leg as he is eligible for the tie.
“Zlatan, of course, I’ve been so impressed, I’ve got to say, by how his career has gone,” United manager Solskjaer told the club’s official website.
“He had a career-threatening injury when he was here but came back from that and went to MLS, then came back to Milan and has really lifted them. They’re on the up and have done really well this season.
“I’ve been so impressed by him, and Diogo we know. He went there to get some experience at a big club and he’s learned a lot. He’s played a lot more games this season, kept fit and, hopefully, we can give him some bother!”
Ibrahimovic hit 28 goals in 46 games in his first season at United, adding one more strike in seven games in the following season as he fought his way back to full fitness.
His United goals came at a rate of one every 139.1 minutes, compared to his stunning Milan average strike rate of 109.9 minutes per goal.
He has also boosted his big chance conversion rate from 35.7 per cent at United to 45 per cent with Milan.
Solskjaer, whose side face Chelsea in the Premier League this Sunday, may have wished for a kinder European draw, particularly as it came on the Norwegian’s 48th birthday.
“It’s a nice birthday gift, isn’t it? To watch that draw!” he said. “We do have the tradition of making it hard for ourselves in draws.
“It’s one of the those draws again that you feel could be a Champions League game. It’s good for us to have these games to look forward to. This team needs challenges and we enjoy challenges and we embrace them.
“The tradition and history of AC Milan, it’s a great club that we welcome and it’s a great stadium that we go to there, and we’re looking forward to it.”