Ibrahimovic returns as Milan extend Serie A lead
Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned from injury, coming off the bench for the final five minutes, as AC Milan defeated Torino 2-0 on Saturday to extend their lead at the top of the standings.
Champions Juventus ended Milan’s 27-match unbeaten run going back to March last weekend.
But Rafael Leao and a Franck Kessie penalty in the first half ensured Milan moved four points ahead of Inter who travel to third-placed Roma on Sunday.
Atalanta moved up to fourth ahead of Juventus after Josip Ilicic scored and set up two others goals in a 4-1 win over midtable Benevento.
In Milan, Ibrahimovic started on the bench, having been laid off since later November with a thigh and then calf problem.
The 39-year-old Swede came on after 85 minutes in place of Leao in a game the hosts had dominated against lowly Torino.
Leao paved the way for Milan after 25 minutes after Theo Hernandez sent the ball through for Brahim Diaz to pass on for the Portuguese forward to beat Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.
The 21-year-old Leao has been in form in Ibrahimovic’s absence, scoring the fastest-ever goal in Serie A history after just six seconds before Christmas.
Kessie calmly slotted in the second from the penalty spot after 36 minutes after a VAR review judged Torino captain Andrea Belotti to have tripped Diaz.
Ricardo Rodriguez missed a chance to score for Torino against his former club, rattling the crossbar before the break with Sirigu denying Kessie from close range.
Milan’s injury woes were compounded when midfielder Sandro Tonali was stretchered off five minutes after the break after colliding with Simone Verdi.
The hosts were first awarded a penalty for the incident which was cancelled after a VAR review.
Ex-Milan coach Marco Giampaolo’s Turin side had few shots on goal with Gianluigi Donnarumma easily clearing a Belotti header after 72 minutes.
Torino slip to 19th place with Genoa moving out of the relegation zone with a 2-0 win over Bologna whose winless run stretched to eight games.
At Benevento, Ilicic proved he has returned to his best form after taking two months out due to personal problems following the first coronavirus lockdown.
The Slovenia striker was impressive throughout, with Atalanta captain Papu Gomez still frozen out after clashing with coach Gian Piero Gasperini.
“We’re into the championship now,” said Gasperini after a third consecutive win.
“It’s a really good time for us, we’ve regained confidence, the ability to play for 90 minutes and also (regained) enthusiasm.”
Ilicic gave the visitors the advantage after half an hour, embarking on a solo run up the right flank, dribbling past three defenders and firing in at the near post, through centre-back Kamil Glik’s legs.
He was a denied a second by the post shortly afterwards with a fierce drive from long range, having also provided perfect crosses for Robin Gosens and Duvan Zapata, who squandered the chances.
Marco Sau pulled Benevento level five minutes after the break, with Zapata having a goal ruled out for offside.
But Ilicic had a role in Atalanta’s next two goals, as Benevento goalkeeper Lorenzo Montipo pushed his 69th-minute effort into the path of Rafael Toloi who scored on the rebound.
Two minutes later, Ilicic was again the creator with a brilliant cross for Zapata to tap in the third from close range.
Substitute Luis Muriel curled in from the edge of the area four minutes from time for his 10th league goal this campaign, and sixth in five games.
Gasperini said the decision to keep Argentinian Gomez sidelined was “a technical choice”.
“I needed to try another type of system because I saw that we were suffering in midfield and Gomez did not adapt.”
On Sunday, fifth-placed Juve face a tough match at home against sixth-placed Sassuolo.
Andrea Pirlo’s side are without three players who are suffering from coronavirus in Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado and Matthijs de Ligt.