Zlatan Ibrahimovic played a Serie A match for Milan for the first time in 2794 days on Monday. How things have changed for the Rossoneri…

Milan spent much of the previous decade battling Manchester United to decide which of Europe’s grandest clubs could fall hardest from their perches.

Such has been their relative misery that each team was linked with bringing back a former star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to inject a little optimism at the start of 2020.

It was Milan who made that particular move, Ibrahimovic returning this week to much fanfare to the club he led to the 2011 Serie A title. He came on as a substitute against Sampdoria on Monday, the self-professed lion greeting the San Siro cheers with an encouraging roar of this own.

If bravado bought points, Ibrahimovic’s arrival would have Milan pushing Juventus at the top of the table before the season is out. As it is, his 35 minutes on the pitch served only to show how far the Rossoneri find themselves from those title-winning standards of nine years ago.

Ibrahimovic came on for Krzysztof Piatek, a one-time goal machine who at the moment looks about as likely to escape a man-marking centre-back as his own shadow.

Piatek managed one shot, 14 touches and five passes in his 55 minutes on the pitch. The Poland international showed lots of endeavour, but when you have scored just six league goals in eight months, hard work counts for little.

As a whole, Milan cannot be accused of a lack of effort since Stefano Pioli took charge in October, but the dearth in quality in their play has reached alarming levels. This is a team assembled at no little expense, under the directorship of former stars Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban, who must spend each passing week remembering the Rossoneri’s seven European Cups and wondering how much further from those standards they can drift.

Ibrahimovic, of course, has never won the Champions League – a blot on a career trophy haul that is otherwise the envy of entire football clubs – and that will not change at San Siro. This draw leaves Milan 12th in the table, 13 points adrift of the top four and only eight above the relegation zone, and only some rather panicked finishing from Samp striker Manolo Gabbiadini prevented this result from being worse. Realistically, Ibrahimovic will be in his 40s by the time Milan are even close to Champions League football again.

But Zlatan was brought back with a more immediate impact in mind. He certainly injected something into this Milan performance, starved of service as he was: he led the attack tolerably well, saw a header saved by Emil Audero and set up Rade Krunic for a chance he failed to take.

It was Mateo Musacchio who set up Rafael Leao for their best chance, only for the winger to give a non-committal stab at the ball and lift it over the bar. It was a finish unbecoming of this club, or even of Ibrahimovic himself, who watched on impassively.

“I don’t come as a mascot, to stand next to the devil [Milanello] and dance,” Ibrahimovic said this week. “I’m here to help out on the pitch.”

Monday’s stalemate means Milan have won four of their past 15 league games. Given the quality around him, perhaps a little cheerleading is the best Zlatan can do for now.

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