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They just about coped without their talismanic Swede last season, but their quest to bring in an alternative has so far come up with nothing, and it could come back to haunt them

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By Kris Voakes | Italy Football Editor

It isn’t only Mr X that AC Milan have spoken about bringing in this summer. Forget for a moment the “thick hair” and all of the other bizarre characteristics that Massimiliano Allegri claimed make up the perfect midfield signing for his side. There has been another shadowy figure they’ve been looking to bring to light over the past three months.

This one is Mr Z. About 190 to 195 centimetres tall, and weighing between 90 and 95 kilograms, he’s a centre-forward. He must also, in that true Italian way, be “a champion”. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s right … they want ANOTHER Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Not happy with having the real deal, the Rossoneri have been looking for a second one. But they were right in their assessment that they could well come to need a ‘proxy Ibra’, with the Swede’s impact last season being such that the side never really looked the complete package without him.

Yes, they won seven of nine senza-Ibra, including the 3-0 derby triumph over Inter. But when it came to assignments against the likes of Cagliari, Palermo, Brescia and Bologna, Milan were much less convincing without their talisman. A victory over Sampdoria was almost a given by April, while the three points against Cagliari came with the title won and the pressure off. Their biggest winning margin came while Marco Borriello was still leading the line.

Zlatan's the man | Allegri may have to find another like him

The bonus, of course, is that Ibrahimovic has rarely sat out an extended period through injury. Not since missing much of the second half of the 2007-08 season with Inter has he missed more than a few games at any one time. But that doesn’t mean he’ll never suffer a long-term problem.

The former Barcelona man is now facing a race to be fit for the opening day trip to Cagliari, at the same Sant’Elia ground that his team-mates struggled in January before being bailed out by Rodney Strasser right at the end, and it begs the question once more as to how they’ll do without him.

MILAN WITHOUT IBRA IN 2010-11
Opponents
LECCE
Cagliari
Palermo
INTER
SAMPDORIA
Brescia
BOLOGNA
CAGLIARI
Udinese
Date
Aug 29
Jan 6
Mar 19
Apr 2
Apr 17
Apr 23
May 1
May 14
May 22
Result
W 4-0
W 1-0
L 0-1
W 3-0
W 3-0
W 1-0
W 1-0
W 4-1
D 0-0
Of course, a second player identical to the winner of eight successive league titles would be very hard to find, but it’s more his physical nature that Milan would be looking for a new signing to replicate. Without Ibra they are a very different prospect. Height becomes an issue, while their physical presence is almost non-existent.

A forward line containing any two of Alexandre Pato, Robinho and the increasingly unneeded Antonio Cassano gives the Rossoneri a more one-dimensional outlook, despite the skill and pace on offer. It’s in their ability to hit Ibrahimovic early that they have come to stretch opponents this way and that, giving them two viable attacking out-balls.

The problem facing Allegri and CEO Adriano Galliani is that there just aren’t too many Ibrahimovics in the world, and fewer still are available. Talk of a move for Didier Drogba fell silent very quickly, while other clubs have recently opted to spend over the odds on players who fit the mould of that centre-forward you can hit early. Over in England, the €28 million signing by Aston Villa of Darren Bent and Liverpool’s €40.8m acquisition of Andy Carroll have gone only to prove that the big, strong No. 9 is a rare – and therefore expensive – commodity in 21st century football.

So while Milan continue to lack their ‘proxy Ibra’ we’ll see just how flexible they are. Tonight’s Trofeo TIM clashes with Inter and Juventus will give us some clue as to how they might cope without the in-form frontman, but it will be if he gets a heavy knock again once the season kicks off when we really find out what the Rossoneri are made of. All the while, the search for Mr Z continues.

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Providing extra support in the midfield, this set-up would allow Milan to give Robben more freedom if anything given the extra numbers in behind him.
BARCELONA WITH ALEXIS SANCHEZ - the possibilities
RIGHT OF A 4-3-3
    LEFT OF A 4-3-3    

Valdes

Alves - Puyol - Pique - Abidal

Xavi - Busquets - Iniesta

SANCHEZ - Messi - Villa

    Valdes

Alves - Puyol - Pique - Abidal

Xavi - Busquets - Iniesta

Pedro - Messi - SANCHEZ
Alexis has played mostly on the right for Udinese and Chile, so with Lionel Messi set to continue as a 'false' No. 9 next season, the club’s new signing could well start in his favoured role. If Pep Guardiola plans to position Alexis on this side, however, the Chilean will be in competition with Spain forward Pedro and Holland attacker Ibrahim Afellay. Both are excellent, but if – as many, including former Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa have said – Alexis is already among the best players in the world, he could make this place his own and former a devastating alliance with both Messi and Brazil right-back Dani Alves.
    While Guardiola has a wealth of options on the right, the Barca coach has more of a dilemma when it comes to choosing his left-sided forward. David Villa filled the role last term, scoring 23 goals in a successful, albeit not entirely convincing, first season at Camp Nou. Guardiola could decide to drop Villa or switch the striker to his favoured central role, with Messi on the right. Sanchez could then come in on the left and though he is right-footed, Barca have long utilised forward players on opposite sides; right-footed Ronaldinho starred on the left, while left-footed Messi rose to stardom on the right.


IN THE CENTRE OF A 4-3-3

   

SUPERSUB ROLE


Valdes

Alves - Puyol - Pique - Abidal

Xavi - Busquets - Iniesta

Messi - SANCHEZ - Villa

   
Valdes

Alves - Puyol - Pique - Abidal

Xavi - Busquets - Iniesta

Pedro - Messi - Villa

This position would seem the least likely for Alexis to fill, simply because it is currently occupied – and how – by the best player in the world. Messi scored 53 goals for Barcelona as a roaming forward last season, starting from the centre of his side’s three-pronged attack. Sanchez has played as a striker and could occupy a similar role, but even with his considerable potential, the Chilean is never likely to reach the Argentine’s level. However, the two forwards will interchange positions and a central role for Alexis is another tactical variant for Guardiola.     The other option for Guardiola is to use Alexis as an impact substitute, much in the same way he did with Afellay last season. While €45m seems – and is – an incredible amount of money to pay for a player, Sanchez will not only have to adapt to Spanish football but also earn his place in a team many already consider the best in history. The forward's incredible pace and trickery would make him the ideal man to run at tired teams and open up defences in difficult matches. In the long-term, he is seen as a starter but his initial role could be as a supersub - a frightening prospect.


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