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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Just before five o’clock last Sunday, in San Siro, the fourth official for AC Milan’s 1-1 draw against Hellas Verona raised his number board and signposted a piece of history.
The number, indicating the substitute to come on, was a high one: 98. The name on Milan’s No 98 jersey is a legendary one: Maldini.
The match was deep into injury-time, so Daniel Maldini’s Serie A debut lasted barely a minute. But it is expected he will have many more opportunities to show, among other things, how unlike his father, Paolo, or his grandfather, Cesare, his style of football is.
They were defenders, an excellent one – Cesare – and a peerless one – Paolo – while the teenage Daniel is a winger. That was probably a wise career choice: comparisons with his father will stalk him throughout his professional life, but his position at least exempts him from future judgements over how unfavourably he measures up to dad or his late granddad as a tackler or man-marker.
His bad luck is to be at a club where nostalgia can sometimes seem suffocating. He may avoid being compared technically with his forebears but his era is constantly measured against theirs.
In the home Daniel, born in late 2001, grew up in there were seven Italian league gold medals and five European Cup replicas in the display cabinet, all won by Paolo.
Trips to Cesare's house, meanwhile, were a chance to look at medals from four Italian championship-winning campaigns with Milan, and the souvenirs from their victorious 1963 European Cup final.
All very distant from the Milan currently excluded from European competition for having breached Uefa’s Financial Fair-Play guidelines, and, going into this weekend, seven points shy of the qualifying positions for next season’s Champions League.
On derby days like today, Milanisti tend to reminisce. Fixtures against Inter Milan, in front of a full house and a vast global broadcast audience, are an opportunity to forget for 90 minutes that the actual seat of power in Italian football has for the last eight years been 150 kilometres away at Juventus, champions each May since 2012, and that it is eight years since either Milan club reached even the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
The chosen antidote for both Inter and AC Milan is a reach back to past success. Inter appointed Antonio Conte as their manager last summer because of his proven record in all the major jobs he has been in – the Italian national team and Chelsea most recently – but most of all because he conquered Serie A at Juventus three times on the trot up to 2014, and in doing so pulled Juve up from a period of crisis.
As for Milan, they last month took the direct route back to happier times by signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their leading goalscorer in the season they last won the Serie A title, 2010-2011, and three times a scudetto winner with Inter between 2007 and 2009.
Ibrahimovic may be 20 years older than Daniel Maldini, he may have scored the first of his Milan derbies by streaking away from Paolo Maldini 13-and-a-half-years ago, but the evidence so far is that at 38, the magic is still there.
In his Milan heyday, Ibrahimovic became something of a totem in derbies: four goals in his four Rossoneri matches against Inter, the last in 2012.
Having returned, he is already looking like the improbable totem that Milan longed for him to be. Milan, still mid-table and 19 points behind second-placed Inter having struggled through the first half of the season, are undefeated in the seven games since Ibrahimovic, who ended his two-year spell with MLS side LA Galaxy in November, joined them for a second time.
He will have a major role tonight, Milan manager Stefano Pioli suggested, acknowledging the uplift Ibrahimovic, who has two goals since his return, has given the squad. “We all need to take inspiration from Zlatan,” said Pioli, “and learn from his determination and hunger.”
The striker, Pioli reported, has recovered from the flu that kept him out against Verona, and thus delayed the resonant moment when he first shares a pitch with an 18-year-old who, Milan hope, grew up exposed enough to the Maldini brand of determination and hunger to arm them in the future.
Updated: February 9, 2020 09:18 AM
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