AC Milan

AC Milan's over-reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic could see them miss out on Champions League

By Harry Symeou
Ibrahimovic's fitness issues have disrupted Milan's season
Ibrahimovic's fitness issues have disrupted Milan's season / Chris Ricco/Getty Images

Despite having challenged at the pinnacle of Serie A for most of the season, AC Milan are doing their best to blow their chances of qualifying for the Champions League.

Stefano Pioli's side were being discussed as title challengers just a matter of months ago and now with just a single game remaining, a failure to earn a result at Atalanta next Sunday could see them miss out and their season go up in smoke after a 0-0 draw with Cagliari.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Ibrahimovic's absence has proven costly in Milan's pursuit of Champions League football / Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

The last time the Rossoneri played in Europe's premier competition was way back in the 2013/14 season and, for a club of their size and stature, it's imperative they get back into the big time sooner rather than later. Only then will they be in a position to attract and subsequently sign the calibre of player required to challenge for the domestic title.

It seemed at one stage that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was going to single-handedly fire the Italian giants to the Scudetto, but injuries have seen him miss 26 games this season.

The Swede's fitness issues have proven to have had a detrimental effect on the side, but the fact they are so reliant on a man who is fast approaching his 40th birthday shines a light on where they are as a squad.

While Franck Kessie and Ante Rebic have also hit double figures in terms of goals this season, the absence of Ibrahimovic's competitive edge has seen the team suffer. The way he demands from his teammates has seen those around him increase their performance levels and, in many ways, his presence has proven to be more of a motivating factor than his boss.

At the start of the season, if you'd had offered Milan supporters the chance to be in the Champions League race with a game to go, most would have bitten your arm off. However, given they led the division for 17 weeks, anything other than a top-four finish has to be regarded as a failure on Pioli's part.

AC Milan have won six of their last ten league fixtures but consecutive defeats in weeks 32 and 33 to Sassuolo at San Siro and Lazio in Rome have seen them dragged back into a race they should have already completed.

After a 7-0 win at Torino last Wednesday, in which Ante Rebic bagged a hat-trick as the Croatian led the line in Ibrahimovic's absence, most would have backed Milan to find a breakthrough against the Sardinians but their finishing let them down on the night.

Ante Rebic, Rafael Leao
Rebic has scored in big recent wins over Juventus and Torino / Chris Ricco/Getty Images

Juventus, who are just a point behind Milan, travel to Bologna on the final day while Napoli who currently occupy third place face Verona at home.

Had the Rossoneri managed to defeat Cagliari, a draw between themselves and Gasperini's Atalanta would have condemned Juventus to a season without Champions League football, but Milan's failure keeps Pirlo's men in the hunt.

Pioli's objective at the start of the campaign would have been to break into the top four and the way they've fallen away can certainly be forgiven if they squeeze over the line. This one is going down to the wire and the short trip from Milan to Bergamo will define their season.