MILAN, Italy, Jan 9 – Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned from injury, coming off the bench for a late cameo appearance, as AC Milan defeated Torino 2-0 on Saturday to extend their lead at the top of Serie A.
Last weekend, champions Juventus ended Milan’s 27-match unbeaten run in the league dating back to March.
But Rafael Leao’s goal and a Franck Kessie penalty in the first half ensured AC Milan moved four points ahead of Inter Milan who travel to third-placed Roma on Sunday.
Ibrahimovic started on the bench, having been out of action since scoring a double against Napoli on November 22, with a thigh injury and then a calf problem.
“We had a clear programme, if Ibrahimovic passed the last test yesterday he could have a small role as he did,” said Milan coach Stefano Pioli.
The 39-year-old Swede, who scored 10 goals in six league games before injury, replaced Leao with five minutes to go in a game the hosts dominated against lowly Torino.
“The important thing is that the muscular problem is behind him, now we’ll have to help him find his way back because he was out a long time,” continued Pioli.
“He’s such a strong player, a great stimulus for the whole team.”
Leao opened the scoring on 25 minutes after Theo Hernandez combined with Brahim Diaz to send the Portuguese forward clear to beat Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.
Kessie calmly slotted in the second from the penalty spot in the 36th minute 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 initially awarded a penalty for the incident which was overturned after a VAR review.
Diaz also went off injured after an hour, with Leao also to miss Milan’s next game against Cagliari after being booked for diving.
Ex-Milan coach Marco Giampaolo’s Torino had few shots on goal, with Gianluigi Donnarumma easily keeping out a Belotti header on 72 minutes.
Torino slip to 19th place, with Genoa moving out of the relegation zone with a 2-0 win over Bologna.
“I was expecting this response after the Juve defeat, because we are (a) young but strong team,” said Pioli.
“Now we will watch Roma-Inter… but it’s not the time to look at the table.”
– Ilicic inspires Atalanta –
Atalanta moved up to fourth ahead of Juventus after Josip Ilicic scored and set up two other goals in a 4-1 win over midtable Benevento.
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.
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.