Zlatan Ibrahimovic was starting his first match in more than two months. He admitted he was rusty and, at 38 years old, not the same as before.
It didn't matter one bit.
Ibrahimovic scored in AC Milan's 2-0 win over Cagliari on Saturday to secure their first victory in four matches - and remind everyone why he's still playing at the highest level. The goal was impressive - he even celebrated before the ball hit the back of the net - but the manner in which he played was better. Milan manager Stefano Pioli had thought about taking Ibrahimovic off midway through the second half, citing age as a factor, but a substitution wasn't necessary. He was playing so well and influencing so much that Pioli decided to leave him on for the entire 90 minutes.
Imagine that. Ibrahimovic hadn't played a full match since Oct. 25 with the LA Galaxy, but here he was, in a different country, in a different league, and in a different environment altogether, facing defenders of a higher level and doing essentially the same thing he's always done.
Ibrahimovic could have positioned himself squarely between Cagliari's defenders and hoped for opportunities to fall his way. Except he knows it's not that easy. With 53 touches - more than Krzysztof Piatek, his junior by 14 years, has managed in any of his 18 appearances this season - Ibrahimovic contributed in all areas of the pitch. He gave Milan an outlet up front, allowing his teammates to boot the ball up the pitch with peace of mind, and retrieved balls in the channels. When he ran, he ran hard, hitting a top speed of 32.45 km/h. That, according to Alessandro Molinaro of Radio Rossonera, is the third-fastest anyone has run in Serie A all season long.
There's a reason he's able to do so much. For all the hubris that props up his made-for-TV persona, there remains a player who's as serious as ever. If he was as empty and shallow as his facade suggests, he'd have tapped out ages ago. The key to his longevity isn't just confidence, it's dedication to his craft.