13 February 2020 21:17

Emiliano Sala Cardiff City F.C. FC Nantes

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Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic came to Serie A for two very different clubs and with two very different goals in mind. On Thursday, two of the most prolific goal scorers of their generation will meet for the ninth time in their respective careers. AC Milan host Juventus in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals--stream live on ESPN+, 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday--and that means 38-year-old recent Milan signing (well, re-signing) Zlatan Ibrahimovic and 35-year-old second-year Juve striker Cristiano Ronaldo will face off for the first time since November 2015. Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic have played each other eight times at the club level: six times in the Champions League and twice in La Liga, when Zlatan was with Barcelona. These matches resulted in three draws, three wins for Ronaldo, two wins for Ibrahimovic and just three combined goals for the two strikers.

Winning the Coppa Italia might represent Milan's best chance to qualify for European competition next year, and the whole point of Juve signing Ronaldo was to win countless trophies. Aside from their goal-scoring capabilities--the two combined for upward of 800 goals in the 2010s (admittedly, about two-thirds of that total came from Ronaldo)--these two strikers don't have a ton in common. Ronaldo has played for just three clubs in the past 17 years (Manchester United, Real Madrid and, for the past season and a half, Juventus), and Ibrahimovic has primarily been a hired gun, playing for more than three seasons with one club just once (Paris Saint-Germain, 2012-16). Ronaldo has won both the Champions League and the Ballon d'Or five times each; Ibrahimovic has zero of either. Juventus, 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN+ Juventus' acquisition of Ronaldo was the grandest of gestures, costing more than £100 million and bringing enormous expectations. Milan's goals in bringing in Ibrahimovic were far more modest. It was clear that, in signing Ronaldo, Juventus were thinking beyond Italy Ronaldo's numbers have picked up in the second half of the season, but there's cause for concern that Juve aren't functioning as well as they were before his arrival. Yet they haven't won the Champions League since 1996. Since beating Ajax in penalties that year in the final, they've lost in the finals five times (1997, 1998, 2003, 2015, 2017). They lost in the quarterfinals or later in four of the six years prior to Ronaldo's signing. Juventus have been unable to get over the hump, and acquiring the face of the Real Madrid team that defeated them in this competition in 2014, 2017 and 2018 seemed like the most direct path to Champions League glory. but then Juve were upset by Ajax in the Champions League quarterfinals last year. As they await their UCL round-of-16 matchup with Lyon in a couple of weeks, they find themselves in a sudden fight for Serie A, tied with Inter Milan on points and only one ahead of red-hot Lazio, the team with the best goal differential and expected goal differential in the league. FiveThirtyEight's club soccer ratings still give Juve a 58% chance to win the league, but those odds have shrunk the past two months. Meanwhile, their Champions League odds? Two years ago, before Ronaldo, they headed into the knockout stage with an 8% chance to win. play 1:32 How does Zlatan's career stack up to Cristiano Ronaldo's? Shaka Hislop says Zlatan's team accomplishments should be considered when comparing him to Ronaldo. It's fair that Ronaldo needed some time to get used to a league that was more cautious and less open than La Liga. (His teammates likely required some time getting used to him.) After averaging 1.02 goals per 90 minutes in his previous La Liga campaign, he averaged just 0.70 last season with Juventus and was averaging 0.57 this season through November. Since then, he has averaged 1.56 goals per 90, taking fewer shots overall (5.1 vs. Except Ronaldo's improved form hasn't yet resulted in a more successful Juve. Heading into December, their first 13 league matches produced 2.7 points per match. Juve went unbeaten in Champions League group play and drew an extremely manageable Round of 16 matchup, they're in the Coppa Italia semis (again), and no one has more points in league play. The next couple of months, however, could dramatically define how we think of Juve's £100 million transaction. It's impossible to not notice that since Ronaldo left Madrid for Turin, both his previous and current clubs have seen their league form drop.--Juventus: 144 points, 114 goals in their first 61 league matches since signing Ronaldo; 150 points, 131 goals in the 61 matches pre-Ronaldo--Real Madrid: 120 points, 107 goals in their first 61 league matches without him; 132, 160 (respectively) in their past 61 with him Although poor form for these clubs is dream form for most--Madrid have since claimed first place in La Liga, after all--regression is regression. Ibrahimovic is clearly back in Milan to serve as a mentor for their young talent, as well as to score a bunch of much-needed goals in the immediate future. At the end of December, Milan were closer to the Serie A relegation zone than the top six. Granted, disappointing performances were nothing new for the Rossoneri: the seven-time Champions League winners haven't finished better than fifth in league play since 2013, and their long search for a misplaced identity has led to both Financial Fair Play sanctions (they were banned from the Europa League this year) and comical coaching turnover (eight managers in the past six years). The main problem: They couldn't score, producing only 16 goals in 17 league matches. Milan were pretty unlucky--per Opta's expected goals measure, they should have had closer to 25--but the combination of youth and bad fortune can cause rapid deterioration in form. In the winter transfer window, the club attempted to address both the youth and the offense. Milan's midfield consists primarily of Franck Kessie (23 years old), Ismaël Bennacer (22) and Lucas Paqueta (22), and forward Rafael Leao (20) has logged more than 1,000 minutes this season. This foursome has combined to score just three goals on 77 shot attempts. He has scored only twice in five matches, primarily attempting headers in the box--42% of his shots with Milan have been headers, and only 27% of his shots have been on target. That said, he's coming off his best performance, notching a goal and an assist in Sunday's derby loss to Inter Milan. play 1:07 Nicol: Ronaldo has MLS written all over him Steve Nicol says Cristiano Ronaldo would bring goals and silverware to any MLS franchise. Correlation does not equal causation, but since the addition of Ibrahimovic, Milan have scored nine goals in six matches--eight in the five that featured Zlatan--and they've gone from 11.7 chances and 1.5 XG per 90 minutes to 14.3 and 2.2, respectively. They are stretching opponents more, attempting and completing more forward passes, long passes and crosses, and they are generating more touches in the opponent's box and creating more of what Opta defines as "big chances"--2.0 per 90 vs. (A big chance: "a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score... penalties are always considered big chances.") Manager Stefano Pioli, on board since October, has begun to use forward Ante Rebic more in this new calendar year as well. After sitting on the bench for most of autumn, the 26-year-old Frankfurt loanee has scored four goals on 12 shots in his past four matches. An attacking trio of Leao, Ibrahimovic and Rebic is making far more happen up front. Despite first-half brilliance from both Ibrahimovic and Rebic against Inter, they turned a 2-0 lead into a 4-2 loss, after which Ibrahimovic told the media, "We stopped playing, the team stopped believing... But even with setbacks, only four teams have produced more points in league play since the start of 2020, and Milan are back to within two points of sixth place, which would get them into Europa League qualification again. Juventus are still the kings of Serie A until proven otherwise, and they are still alive in the Champions League. But it's interesting to think about the different expectations heaped on these two legendary strikers, and it's fair to wonder if we'll look back on Ibrahimovic's (likely) short stay in Milan as more of a success than the grand gesture of bringing Ronaldo to northern Italy.

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