By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
We’ve been here before. It was last March when Zlatan Ibrahimovic lashed out at Bari’s Marco Rossi in back play during a disappointing draw at San Siro. His red card and subsequent suspension appeared to have jeopardised AC Milan’s title charge, with a derby clash with Inter one of the fixtures he was due to miss. But whereas last time around the Rossoneri pulled through without their talisman, there is a very different feel about what the Swede’s current ban could do to their hopes of retaining the Scudetto.
His latest red card, for a slap on Napoli’s Salvatore Aronica on Sunday, has resulted in a three-match ban which will see him miss trips to Udinese and Cesena, plus – crucially – the San Siro clash with Juventus at the end of the month. He and Milan could yet decide to appeal against the suspension, with the FIGC’s justice committee potentially holding one of the keys to the title in their hands in making a decision.
There are two very important differences between the current case and the episode with Rossi last spring. The showpiece game of Ibra’s ban in 2011 was the second of his original three-match punishment, with his appeal then resulting in a one-game deduction which saw him return for the trip to Fiorentina but still miss out on the Derby della Madonnina. Now, there will be great spotlight on the next step in the disciplinary process given that game three could be a title decider.
|IBRA-DEPENDENT | How Milan have become reliant on the Swede this season
|With Ibra 2010-11
|With Ibra 2011-12||19||12||4||3||40||2.11||2.11
|Without Ibra 2010-11||9
|Without Ibra 2011-12||3||1||1||1||3||1.33||1.00
And that is especially so after Milan turned in another clueless performance at the weekend. With Robinho putting on an anonymous display yet again, the doubts over the champions’ threat on the ball increased. Their midfield has become increasingly one-dimensional as the season has progressed and, Ibra aside, their attack has struggled for both goals and ingenuity.
The next three games will make or break the Rossoneri’s title hopes. If they can at least maintain the current gap behind Juve in the table, then they should still be regarded as the favourites to pull off a title success. If they drop further behind, they could well be a goner.
|MILAN'S OTHER OFFENSIVE PLAYERS
|Stephan El Shaarawy||11||1|
Milan will now look to Maxi Lopez to make a huge impression just a couple of weeks after his eventual arrival from Catania. They had the Argentine striker sat waiting around in a Milan hotel while they attempted to make strides in their move for his countryman Carlos Tevez before finally getting Lopez to sign on the dotted line when the Tevez move became doomed.
Yet their second-choice signing must now prove he can lead a Serie A title challenge. It is a big ask of anyone at any time, but it is especially so given the current absences of Alexandre Pato, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Antonio Cassano, along with the poor form of Robinho and Filippo Inzaghi’s continued battle with Father Time.
The struggles are reflected in the numbers, with the Rossoneri infinitely more reliant upon Ibrahimovic for goals and results this season. Their win percentage is up when he plays, down when he doesn't. Last term, they had what it took to get over his absences. Do they now? You wouldn’t bet on it.
On Wednesday night at San Siro, Ibrahimovic will lead Milan’s attack against Juventus as they look to blaze a trail to Rome for the Coppa Italia final. But by the time he comes up against Italian opposition once more, the Rossoneri’s title hopes could be over. The next few games will provide their make or break moment.Follow Kris Voakes on