Andy Brassell on European Football: Atlético ride again while Zlatan could genuinely boost Milan
As Milan try to hide their problems behind the mountainous Swede, Atlético and Marseille have to-do lists as 2020 begins, writes Andy Brassell
Atlético's hopes of re-emerging as a title threat
Diego Simeone's side resumed their La Liga campaign in good fettle, beating Levante on Saturday, even if they needed (stop me if you've heard this before) an excellent Jan Oblak save late on to seal the points. With Barcelona's slip in the derby at Espanyol, Atleti are now five points behind the big two of Barça and Real Madrid at the summit, despite having drawn eight of their first 18 games.
That shortcoming is easily explained. Simeone and company really struggled for goals in the first half of the campaign and before their current run of three straight La Liga wins in which they scored six (four successive wins/eight goals in all competitions), they were scoring a mere one per game on average. The current goalscoring run might not be a feast, but it is a generously packed picnic by this season's standards.
It might get even better if they do manage to snare Edinson Cavani this winter, a player who would fit Atleti's labour-intensive model perfectly and make them way more dangerous. For now Ángel Correa is the key, chipping in with two goals and two assists in those three La Liga wins in a row, including a sublime opener against Levante. With a relatively low winning points total likely and the excellent form of Correa - who they tried to sell to Milan last summer - Atlético can't yet be totally ruled out of the title race.
Back Atlético Madrid to win at Eibar at1.87
Can Zlatan be the Christmas present Milan dream of?
You're either a believer, or you're not. There appears to be no middle ground when it comes to judging the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Milan. It's either the second coming or a tired attempt to resuscitate a struggling European football giant, and nothing in between, most would say.
That doesn't have to be the case. Granted, signing a 38-year-old and pinning your hopes on him hardly points to a coherent long-term plan, and MLS watchers will know that Ibrahimovic is pretty slow nowadays. He does, however, remain a formidable physical presence and technically excellent, as well as a real threat in front of goal. His second debut, as a substitute against Sampdoria on Monday, showed that his skillset could work well as a foil for the struggling young Portuguese Rafael Leão. Zlatan's power also circumvents the need to play flowing football which is good, because Milan currently look wholly incapable of doing so.
What if, though, his greatest value was off the field? A bit of a media and merchandising boost is to be expected, certainly, providing some relief in a season of misery so far. Yet it is rarely acknowledged that Ibrahimovic is a real mentor and leader, helping younger (and lesser) players while demanding the best from those around him and raising standards. For a dressing room lacking genuine leaders, the Swede could be worth his weight in gold.
Back the draw between Cagliari and Milan at 3.60
Don't crown Marseille best of the rest just yet
There's no contest in terms of France's greatest success story so far this season. André Villas-Boas talked of aiming to get Marseille back in the Champions League at the start of the season but must have privately felt it as a hope rather than an expectation. Yet his team went into the winter break five points clear in second place - and, crucially, ten and 12 points ahead of spluttering rivals Monaco and Lyon respectively.
Their return to action in the Coupe de France this weekend reminded us that they have a long way to go if they are to clinch that runners-up spot and the prize that comes with it. OM really struggled past fourth-tier Trélissac, eventually needing a penalty shootout to finish off the amateurs. Hiroki Sakai's red card also means they're a key defender down for Friday's trip to Rennes, who currently occupy third and have a game in hand.
It's the tip of a demanding schedule, with away games at Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne and Lille to follow in the first fortnight of February. Under financial constraints, they could yet lose players including revitalised midfielder Morgan Sanson this month, though Florian Thauvin (pictured above) is slated to return soon. Villas-Boas deserves enormous credit so far, but the job is only half done.