Rome (AFP) – Zlatan Ibrahimovic rarely hesitates to harangue his young AC Milan teammates but “it’s better than if he said nothing”, says Algeria midfielder Ismael Bennacer.
France-born Bennacer joined Milan from Empoli in 2019 and has, over the past two seasons, become one of the key members of the team who are currently leading Serie A.
“Even if sometimes we see that he’s screaming on the pitch, it’s better than if he didn’t say anything, otherwise it would mean that he doesn’t care,” the 23-year-old told AFP.
“He brings us a lot. With all the experience he has acquired, he tries to take us to the highest level with him, he always seeks perfection. He gives us a lot of advice.”
The 39-year-old Swedish star has been a talismanic figure since returning to Milan in January 2020, reviving the fallen European giants.
Ibrahimovic has become a standard bearer among a new generation of young talent, with the average age of the seven-time European champions one of the lowest in Serie A.
Playing alongside Bennacer is 24-year-old Ivory Coast midfielder Franck Kessie, France’s Theo Hernandez, 23, Portuguese Rafael Leao and Belgian Alexis Saelemaekers, both 21.
Despite his experience, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is also only 21.
Milan were top of the league at the halfway point in January for the first time since 2011, the year they went on to win their 18th and last Scudetto.
The catalyst for the revival was possibly their humiliating 5-0 defeat by Atalanta at the end of 2019.
“After this defeat, there was a lot of soul searching,” said Bennacer, who was born in Arles, in the south of France, to an Algerian mother and a Moroccan father.
Current Milan coach Stefano Pioli arrived a few weeks before the Atalanta humiliation.
“(Pioli) knows how to manage the group, he’s close to us, he always asks us if we are tired, if we are well and so on.
“(He brought) that team spirit that maybe we didn’t have enough of before, how to wear this jersey.”
– ‘A good feeling’ –
Milan lead city rivals Inter by two points before their trip to Spezia on Saturday.
But there is still a long way to go if they are to last the distance and deny Juventus a 10th consecutive Serie A title.
“If we don’t do something this year, everything we’ve done before that, since March, will be forgotten,” Bennacer said.
“We must, for ourselves, try to make Milan the great club that it was.
“It’s also for the fans. It’s very, very boring to play behind closed doors. They’re not there but they follow us, for them we have to give everything.”
Bennacer played for the Arsenal youth team from 2015 before heading for Italy where he spent two years with Empoli, first in Serie B and then the top flight.
The best player of the 2019 African Cup of Nations won by Algeria, he has just returned from a thigh injury that hampered him for almost two months.
“It’s the first injury which took me off the pitch for so long, but I have a good feeling about this recovery,” said the defensive midfielder, whose discipline has improved this season.
So far he has picked up just one yellow card in 10 league games this term, compared to 14 in 31 games last season.
“I work a lot on my faults. I was a little too aggressive, not thinking,” admits Bennacer, who has been learning quickly under the tutelage of Ibrahimovic.
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