Franck Kessie's penalty salvaged a last-gasp point for Milan against Udinese at San Siro but Zlatan Ibrahimovic's absence was felt as the Rossoneri's title hopes took another blow in a 1-1 draw.

Leading scorer Ibrahimovic is set to miss up to three weeks with a thigh injury and on Wednesday's evidence Milan could struggle to cope.

With leaders Inter in action on Thursday, Milan would have moved to within a point of their city rivals with a victory, yet a mistake from Gianluigi Donnarumma looked set to cost them.

Rodrigo Becao's 68th-minute header found its way past the Italy goalkeeper, but Jens Stryger Larsen's inexplicable handball enabled Kessie to rescue a point from the penalty spot with the last kick of the game.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic declared "I have been the best on this stage" as the Milan star made his controversial debut at the Sanremo festival.

Ibrahimovic has been criticised for attending the music event, which spans four days, while Milan fight for the Serie A title.

It also comes as the 39-year-old forward nurses an injury, forcing him to miss Wednesday's clash against Udinese at San Siro after exiting Sunday's win away to Roma.

But Ibrahimovic looked comfortable on Tuesday, stepping out on stage as co-presenter while joking with fellow presenter Amadeus.

"It is an honour to be here, but also an honour for you to have me here," Milan's top goalscorer Ibrahimovic told Amadeus.

"Normally I feel big, powerful, but here I feel small. Still bigger and more powerful than you, though."

Ibrahimovic added: "First of all, there will be 22 singers in the competition, 11 against 11, otherwise it's not right.

"Seeing as there are 26, sell four of the singers, I hear Liverpool are looking for players. If not, put them in the garden and I'll get them working.

"The second rule is about the stage. It's too small, made for small people like you. I need the stage to be 105 metres by 68 metres, like the pitch at San Siro.

"No stress, don't worry, as long as Zlatan is here, everything will be fine. Zlatan's Festival lasts 90 minutes plus stoppages.

"I have been the best on this stage. Not just tonight, but of all time."

Ibrahimovic has scored 14 Serie A goals this season – only Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (19) and Romelu Lukaku (18) have managed more – as Milan sit second in the table, four points behind leaders Inter.

Ante Rebic has been passed fit to partner Rafael Leao up front but it remains to be seen if Alessio Romagnoli will start when injury-hit Milan face Udinese in Serie A on Wednesday.

Rebic scored the winner in the Rossoneri's 2-1 victory over Roma on Sunday before being withdrawn due to injury.

Milan head coach Pioli says the Croatia international will be ready to start against Udinese and Leao will take his place in the team after coming off the bench at the weekend to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Asked about Rebic's fitness, Pioli said: "He's fine, he can start against Udinese. On Sunday he played a great match, his characteristics are important for us. There is no doubt about his qualities."

Pioli said following the much-needed win over Roma that he suspected Ibrahimovic, who is appearing at the Sanremo music festival, was weary rather than wounded and the talismanic striker will not face Luca Gotti's men.

Milan are taking no risks over Ibrahimovic's fitness, with a Europa League showdown against his former club Manchester United to come next week.

Hakan Calhanoglu will also miss the encounter with Udinese, which second-placed Milan will start knowing a victory would leave them just a point behind leaders Inter, while Ismael Bennacer and Mario Mandzukic are expected to return next week.

Leao has not scored since January 9, but Pioli has full faith in the 21-year-old.

"Up until a few days ago we talked about an improved Leao and inside the game," he said. "I'm satisfied with Leao, tomorrow he will start from the beginning.

"From a mental point of view he is ready, he has grown a lot."

Captain Romagnoli was left out of the starting line-up at Stadio Olimpico and Pioli refused to be drawn on whether the defender will be restored to the side.

"The matches are all important but also different, for me to be able to choose is great luck," Pioli said. "Only tomorrow morning we will try the starting eleven, we will choose the most suitable team and the best players."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is sticking to his guns despite coming in for criticism after stating that athletes like LeBron James should steer clear of politics.

The Milan forward found himself at the centre of controversy after saying the likes of James should "do what you're good at" rather than engage in any kind of activism.

Los Angeles Lakers star James hit back and vowed never to "just stick to sports", insisting he had a role to play as a voice against racism and other pressing societal issues.

James is a friend of former United States president Barack Obama and his own foundation supports a school that is aimed at helping disadvantaged children. 

But Ibrahimovic, who has also been criticised for agreeing to appear in the Sanremo music festival amid the Serie A season, refused to back down.

"Racism and politics are two different things. Athletes unite the world, politics divides it," said the 39-year-old, who was injured in Sunday's 2-1 win over Roma and could be sidelined for up to three weeks, which would rule him out of facing former club Manchester United in the Europa League later this month.

"Everyone is welcome in our environment, it doesn't matter where you come from and we are doing everything to bring people together.

"My message? Athletes should be athletes, politicians should be politicians."

Responding to questions over his appearance at the music event, which spans four days, while Milan fight for the title, the Swede added: "I'm a professional and anyone who knows me, knows that. When I play football I'm only focused on that.

"I want to help Milan, and to give a lot to Italy for everything that it has given me over the years, not only in football.

"I had the chance to be a guest at the festival, one of the most important in Italy, and decided to participate."

Milan technical director Paolo Maldini said the club are weighing up whether to sign Fikayo Tomori permanently from Premier League giants Chelsea.

Tomori has impressed since arriving on loan in January, the 23-year-old's impact highlighted by his starting berth at the expense of captain Alessio Romagnoli in Milan's 2-1 win over Roma on Sunday.

Milan have an option to buy Tomori at the end of the season – the fee reportedly in the region of £25million (€28m).

Asked about Tomori's future prior to Milan's Serie A victory away to Roma, Maldini told Sky Sport Italia: "Tomori is a good talent and we have a buy-option clause.

"The price is very high. AC Milan will decide at the end of this season and we will discuss it with Chelsea's board."

"Fortunately, I work for a club that has an effect on players. When AC Milan call, the players always listen," Maldini added.

"Fikayo is a player with particular characteristics, pace and intensity, so we thought he could be a good reinforcement for this second half of the season.

"Naturally, Romagnoli isn't happy, no player is when he doesn't play. However, Milan are 17 points better off than last season, we're second despite having more commitments and many injuries, so squad rotation is necessary and Alessio has played pretty much every game."

Tomori partnered Simon Kjaer in Milan's defence as second-placed Milan stayed within four points of leaders Inter after 24 matches.

Franck Kessie and Ante Rebic scored for Milan, while Tomori had an early goal ruled out for offside.

Tomori had a team-high six clearances and two blocks, while he attempted the most passes (60) with an accuracy of 88.3 per cent at the heart of Milan's defence.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli hailed Englishman Tomori post-match: "I expected this performance, because Tomori played a derby a couple of days after joining us, so he's been at this level from the start.

"I still believe it's the collective that allows the individual to perform and all together we won a very important match.

"Roma have players with a lot of pace and quality in attack, so we knew that we were taking a risk, but we also recovered more balls in the opposition half – finally – and were therefore more dangerous in attack.

"It's about weighing up the costs and benefits of an approach, and this approach is giving us more benefits."

LeBron James has vowed never to "just stick to sports" after footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic said he did not support the NBA star getting involved with politics. 

Los Angeles Lakers superstar James has been a powerful voice against racism and police brutality, among a host of social issues, in the United States. 

James is a friend of former United States president Barack Obama and his own foundation supports a school that is aimed at helping disadvantaged children. 

Milan striker Ibrahimovic told Discovery+ Sport in Sweden: "He's phenomenal what he's doing, but I don't like when people, when they have some kind of status and they do politics at the same time as what they're doing. 

"Do what you’re good at, do the category you do. I play football because I'm the best in playing football, I don't do politics. 

"If I would be a political politician, I would do politics. That is the first mistake people do when they become famous and they come in a certain status. 

"Stay out of it, just do what you're best at, because it doesn't look good." 

That outburst was shot down by NBA star James, who said it was important to use his platform to shine a light on inequalities and injustice. 

"At the end of the day, I would never shut up about things," James said. 

"That's wrong. I appreciate about my people and I appreciate about equality, social injustice, racism, systematic voting, voter suppression, things that go in our community, because I was a part of my community at one point and seeing things what's going on. 

"I see what's going on still because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that's going through the same thing and they need a voice and I'm their voice. 

"I use my platform to continue to shed light on everything that may be going on, not only in my community but around this country and around the world. There's no way I will ever just stick to sports because I understand this platform and how powerful my voice is." 

James pointed to the time when Ibrahimovic complained of being racially discriminated against in his native Sweden three years ago, because he did not have a traditionally Swedish name.

At the time, Ibrahimovic spoke of "undercover racism" in the Swedish media.

James, therefore, expressed surprise at why Ibrahimovic would make his latest claims.

"I speak from a very educated mind," James said, "so I'm kind of the wrong guy to actually go at, because I do my homework."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is relishing the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Old Trafford after being blown away by the late-career rejuvenation of the Swedish great.

Manchester United and Milan were drawn together in the Europa League last 16 on Friday, giving the second-tier competition a glamour tie.

A serious knee ligament injury sustained in April 2017, near the end of his first season with Manchester United, raised doubts about whether Ibrahimovic would play at the highest level again. He got fit enough to make a first-team return before heading off to LA Galaxy, seemingly to wind down his career in the United States.

Yet Ibrahimovic was not finished with European football and in December 2019 embarked on a second spell with Milan, which has surpassed the most generous of expectations.

Ibrahimovic has scored 27 goals in 40 games so far for the Rossoneri, including 16 in 20 appearances this season to help Milan mount a title challenge. In doing so, the 39-year-old has passed the 500-goal mark in his club career.

Milan's lead in the Scudetto race was reined in by Inter, who now lead the way in Serie A, but Ibrahimovic's impact has been seismic in Italy.

United loanee Diogo Dalot, who has played 19 games for Milan this season, may also be heading back to Manchester for the March 11 first leg as he is eligible for the tie.

"Zlatan, of course, I've been so impressed, I've got to say, by how his career has gone," United manager Solskjaer told the club's official website.

"He had a career-threatening injury when he was here but came back from that and went to MLS, then came back to Milan and has really lifted them. They're on the up and have done really well this season.

"I've been so impressed by him, and Diogo we know. He went there to get some experience at a big club and he's learned a lot. He's played a lot more games this season, kept fit and, hopefully, we can give him some bother!"

Ibrahimovic hit 28 goals in 46 games in his first season at United, adding one more strike in seven games in the following season as he fought his way back to full fitness.

His United goals came at a rate of one every 139.1 minutes, compared to his stunning Milan average strike rate of 109.9 minutes per goal.

He has also boosted his big chance conversion rate from 35.7 per cent at United to 45 per cent with Milan.

Solskjaer, whose side face Chelsea in the Premier League this Sunday, may have wished for a kinder European draw, particularly as it came on the Norwegian's 48th birthday.

"It's a nice birthday gift, isn't it? To watch that draw!" he said. "We do have the tradition of making it hard for ourselves in draws.

"It's one of the those draws again that you feel could be a Champions League game. It's good for us to have these games to look forward to. This team needs challenges and we enjoy challenges and we embrace them.

"The tradition and history of AC Milan, it's a great club that we welcome and it's a great stadium that we go to there, and we're looking forward to it."

There is an age-old argument about which footballer is the greatest of all time: Pele or Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, or the alternative option named by Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

Although some may expect the charismatic Swedish star to bestow such an honour upon himself, the 39-year-old believes the all-time best is prolific Brazilian forward Ronaldo.

Ronaldo starred for PSV, Barcelona, Inter and Real Madrid during a distinguished 14-year European club career, claiming the Ballon d'Or in 1997 and 2002, and earning countless other prizes and awards.

'Il Fenomeno' helped his nation lift the World Cup twice, in 1994 and 2002, and was once a runner-up in 1998, while scoring 62 goals in 98 international caps for the Selecao.

"I always tell everyone who plays with me: Ronaldo is football. That Ronaldo is football," said Ibrahimovic.

"The way he moved, the way he did those stepovers, those mazy runs. In my view, he is the best player in history, no doubt about it."

While the Milan striker was in his homeland speaking to UEFA and Discovery+ about his career, he also voiced strong opinions about NBA superstar LeBron James.

While Ibrahimovic recognises the 17-time All-Star's talent, he does not agree that athletes should use their platform for political reasons, like campaigning for justice and social change.

"What he does is phenomenal, but I don't like it when people with a certain status talk about politics," he said.

"Do what you are good at. I play football because I am the best at it. If I was a politician, I’d have gone into politics.

"This is the first mistake that famous people make when they feel like they've arrived.

"I think it's better to steer clear of these issues and do what you're good at."

Stefano Pioli says Milan are no longer happy simply playing the part of challengers in the Serie A title race and will work hard to recover from a testing stretch that now includes a derby defeat to Inter.

The Rossoneri have led the league for much of the season but slipped four points off the pace with Sunday's 3-0 home loss to their rivals at San Siro.

Lautaro Martinez added to his early opener with a second after the break, with Romelu Lukaku capping Milan's second consecutive Serie A defeat.

Pioli's side also conceded a last-ditch equaliser to Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League since losing at Spezia, their overwhelmingly positive campaign threatening to come off the rails.

Milan have now suffered four defeats in Serie A in 2021, twice as many as in the whole of the previous calendar year.

Pioli saw improvement in this performance compared to the Spezia setback, though, as Milan enjoyed 59.9 per cent of the possession and had 15 attempts, and the coach is determined to stay level-headed.

But the team's ambitions have changed over the course of the campaign and there must now be a response, he added.

"I believe that our strength has always been balance – and belief in our work," Pioli told DAZN.

"If they had told us months ago that at this point of the season we were second in the standings, we would have jumped for joy. This doesn't have to make us happy and content now.

"In these past two or three games, we have not been able to put our quality on the field. We need to get back to doing more.

"We were really poor in the Spezia game. Today we feel sorry for ourselves, for the fans, for the club, but today we played our game.

"We have to maintain clarity, positivity, and evaluate things well. When you lose, you have to work harder and this we will have to do."

While Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma became the youngest player to clock up 200 games in Serie A in the three-points-per-win era, his opposite number ensured the milestone passed with little cause for celebration.

The outstanding Samir Handanovic made eight saves, his most in a game for Inter since pulling off eight against Lazio in January 2019 and most in a Serie A outing since the same number against Juventus in December 2017.

Only three times in Handanovic's Nerazzurri career has he made more than eight stops in a match.

The keeper denied Zlatan Ibrahimovic on five occasions as the veteran Milan superstar failed to add to his tally of 10 Milan derby goals.

Pioli recognised Handanovic's display but refused to criticise Ibrahimovic, who was withdrawn after 75 minutes with cramp in his calf.

"A centre-forward is conditioned by the performance of the team," he said. "In the first half, we did not have the accuracy in the plays, in the final pass.

"In the second half, then we created and had scoring chances. It is a long time since Samir Handanovic saved so often and so well. It is a difficult week, but we will recover."

Just one of Handanovic's saves came in the first half and Pioli rued Milan's slow start as he reflected on the match as a whole.

"The goal immediately after five minutes weighed heavily," he said. "We struggled to find the rhythm, intensity and quality that was needed to find spaces.

"We let Inter play the game where they are strongest.

"In the second half, we were succeeding but we were unable to score in our best moment. Then came the second goal.

"I have nothing to say about the second half of my team; in the first half, we had to do something more."

Erling Haaland said he is learning from Zlatan Ibrahimovic after his stunning goal against Schalke, while Jadon Sancho hailed Borussia Dortmund's "goal machine".

Haaland scored a brace, including a spectacular volley, as Dortmund crushed lowly Schalke 4-0 in Saturday's Revierderby at the VELTINS-Arena.

After netting twice in the Champions League win at Sevilla on Wednesday, in-demand Norway international Haaland took his Bundesliga tally for Dortmund to 30 in 32 matches.

Reflecting on his memorable 45th-minute goal – teed up by star team-mate Jadon Sancho, Haaland told Bundesliga.com: "It was a nice goal.

"Obviously it was a good assist from Jadon. We try to work a lot and it's a pleasure to play with this guy."

Asked if he had developed a taste for spectacular goals from Swedish great Ibrahimovic, Haaland – who has been linked to the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester United – replied: "Maybe. Maybe I'm learning a bit from him!"

Sancho became the youngest player to reach 35 goals in Bundesliga history, aged 20 years, 10 months and 26 days.

Tipped to join Premier League powerhouse United at the start of the season, England international Sancho lauded Haaland post-match.

"He's a goal machine," said Sancho. "I'm happy to assist his crazy goal, his first goal.

"On the training pitch, me and Erling work together so hard so I'm wasn't surprised that he's able to do some of the things he does on the pitch. He deserves all the credit."

Interim Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic heaped praise on both Haaland and Sancho afterwards.

"They've been fantastic in the past weeks as well," Terzic said. "You can see the quality those boys bring to us. At the second goal the cross by Jadon has already been remarkable and the way Erling hammered it in was extraordinary.

"But from a manager's perspective I have to say I preferred the third goal, because it was a great team effort where we've seen the exact things we practice in training, the way we want to combine and then quickly get behind the defence through one touch on the wings and play a cross. So the third goal makes me even happier and prouder."

On Sancho specifically following a slow start to the season, Terzic added: "It was clear that Jadon hasn't unlearnt how to play football. He is a very talented player, and we are quite spoilt seeing him on the pitch in the last couple of years, because he’s always been very productive.

"It wasn't an easy time for him, and we went through it together. I was asked a lot of times about how we deal with him. We talked a lot and we worked with him individually and tried supporting him as a team. He plays on the other side on and with Raphael Guerrero he's got a great partner with whom he can combine well. He found back to being a dangerous attacker and makes assists.

"He's back at his old strength but it doesn't mean we will stop progressing. We will continue and we have several tasks we need to achieve, and we need Jadon in top form for that."

Stefano Pioli and Antonio Conte are relishing the prospect of a possible Scudetto shoot-out in Sunday's Derby della Madonnina.

Inter lead Milan by one point at the Serie A summit heading into this weekend's showdown after leapfrogging their bitter rivals last week.

With nine-in-a-row champions Juventus eight points adrift of top spot, albeit with a game in hand to play, the title is looking likely to end up at San Siro this season.

Milan are seeking a first Scudetto since 2011, a year after Inter last prevailed, and Sunday's game may go a long way towards determining who finishes top come the end of the campaign.

It is the first time the sides will meet holding the top two positions in the table since April 2011 and Conte is expecting a unique derby in the behind-closed-doors contest.

"It will be different to the previous derbies because of the teams' high positions - first and second," Conte said at a news conference on Saturday.

"This is very satisfying for the city of Milan. There is a lot at stake, certainly more than just local pride.

"We have to do our best to win the game and stay top of the table. It is an important match. When the table is like this you need to be even more determined."

Milan beat Inter 2-1 in October and are seeking a league double over their city rivals for the first time since 2010-11.

However, Inter won last month's eventful Coppa Italia quarter-final tie by the same scoreline and Pioli is anticipating a cagey affair in this latest tussle.

"Tomorrow we will play a derby like we have not seen for many years, with a lot on the line," Pioli told reporters.

"Both us and Inter have a clear identity. The derbies are always balanced matches with many goalscoring opportunities.

"It is not necessarily decisive for the fate of the championship, but it is important because we have been in the lead all season."

The big talking point from the most recent meeting between the sides was the coming together of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku.

But Conte, who won three titles during his time in charge of Juventus, does not believe tempers will flare this time around.

"It's going to be a match with two teams trying to win and surpass each other," Conte said.

"We must never forget that, even if this is a big game and a derby, it remains a sport. I don't predict much tension in the atmosphere.

Ibrahimovic has scored 10 goals in all competitions in this fixture, including eight for Milan, and Pioli would not swap his striker for Inter star Lukaku.

"I respect Lukaku, but I prefer Ibra," Pioli said. "Tomorrow's game must be a collective effort; we must play as a team. It is the collective that highlights the qualities of the individual.

"We have to play well because we know how to do it, we have the technical qualities."

Asked how his Inter side plan to deal with Ibrahimovic, Conte said: "You neutralise threats by working as a team and reducing the errors.

"Ibrahimovic is a top player who is doing very well for Milan. He has already scored against us this season, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will score again."

Milan have lost three league games since the start of 2021 - one more than over the whole of 2020 - and were held 2-2 by Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League on Thursday.

Pioli, who has constantly played down his side's title aspirations, accepted an improvement is required on the back of some below-par displays.

"We did not raise our levels against Red Star - even the defensive phase did not see us as solid and compact," he said.

"Tomorrow we must be very careful and determined. Our goal is to give the best, then we'll see what we've achieved at the end of the season."

Stefano Pioli insists Milan are focusing only on the first leg of their Europa League tie with Red Star Belgrade, despite a huge derby with Inter coming up this weekend.

The Rossoneri have slipped off top spot in Serie A, with Saturday's surprise loss away to Spezia allowing their city rivals to take over at the summit. 

Next up in the league is a showdown with Inter at San Siro on Sunday, though not before Milan travel to Belgrade to continue a European campaign that began way back in mid-September of last year. 

Milan had to come through qualifying in the Europa League, needing a penalty shoot-out success over Rio Ave to make it to the group stage, and Pioli is determined to extend their run beyond the last 32. 

"No one can ever forget all the joy and emotions brought by the win against Rio Ave, so we have to put on the pitch this joy and these emotions on Thursday," Pioli told the media ahead of Thursday's game against Red Star.

"We want to amaze in this competition too.  

"We have lots of games ahead, all even more important and decisive, with the two legs of the last-32 tie being a knockout round.   

"The coming Serie A games will be equally important with 16 games to go until the end of the league, plus, hopefully, we have 8-10 games left to play in the Europa League.  

"Now is the moment to prove we're up to the task – but we have the quality to do so, with the desire to go to the end of both competitions."

Even with the setback against Spezia, Milan are on course to achieve their target of securing Champions League qualification through a top-four finish in Serie A.

The Europa League also offers an alternative route, so Pioli has no plans to prioritise one competition over the other at this stage of a demanding campaign.

"We're a team with a young average age and we need at certain stages to show our qualities, to grow and better understand situations that are different," he said.

"Even (technical director and club legend) Paolo Maldini not long ago stated that Milan needs two consecutive seasons in the Champions League to get back to its high standards. This is our objective. 

"To achieve that, we can either win the Europa League or finish in the top four of the league. This is what we are focused on – and we will fight until the end to achieve it."

Demonstrating his commitment to the tie, Pioli has included Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the squad to travel to Belgrade, while Ante Rebic is also included after missing the Spezia defeat through injury.

Milan are looking to win three consecutive matches in a major UEFA European competition for the first time since a four-game streak between September and November 2008.

Stefano Pioli remains confident Milan can agree contract extensions to keep Hakan Calhanoglu and Gianluigi Donnarumma at the club. 

Both goalkeeper Donnarumma and midfielder Calhanoglu – two influential players in helping Milan sit top of Serie A – have expiring deals, along with talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

Technical director Paolo Maldini recently said Milan hope to reach terms to retain the trio beyond the current campaign, with head coach Pioli wanting them to stay as they build for the future.  

"The important thing is that both the club and the technical group have already had their say in a convincing way," Pioli said of contract negotiations ahead of Saturday's trip to Spezia.  

"We are happy to be able to continue the journey together and the boys are also very determined. 

"We all want to do well, the club is building something important and we are all focused on doing the best." 

Donnarumma has played in 20 of 21 league games under Pioli this season. The 21-year-old boasts a save percentage of 73.33 in Serie A – only Lazio's Pepe Reina (73.68) has managed better out of all the goalkeepers to feature at least 10 times in the competition. 

Calhanoglu, meanwhile, has a league-leading eight assists despite missing three games after testing positive for coronavirus. Indeed, since the beginning of December, he has set up seven goals in Serie A, the joint-most in the top five European Leagues, along with Kingsley Coman at Bayern Munich. 

The Turkey international will be back in the team to face Spezia as Milan aim to avoid a first league loss on the road since December 22, 2019. 

"Calhanoglu will start, either (Ante) Rebic or (Rafael) Leao will play on the left," Pioli said on Friday. "We will see what will happen – we want to get to the end of the season without regrets.

"We have ample room for improvement, we must raise our level because expectations are now high."

Pioli received praise from Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis for his work this week, with the pair united in their aim to help the Rossoneri become a dominant force again, both domestically and in Europe.

"We are in tune and his statements have made me very happy, our relationship with time has grown," Pioli said of the comments made by Gazidis.

"With the club we are going in the same direction and we have only one goal, to bring Milan back up. There have never been divisions and we must continue like this."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the "exception to all rules" and anything is possible regarding an extension to his Milan contract, says the club's CEO Ivan Gazidis.

Despite being 39, Ibrahimovic continues to dazzle in Serie A and has 14 goals in just 11 league appearances for the table-topping Rossoneri.

A brace in the weekend's 4-0 rout of Crotone saw Ibrahimovic surpass 500 career goals and led technical director Paolo Maldini to suggestion an extension to the veteran Swede's deal – which runs out at the end of the season – is in the works.

Gazidis struck a similar tone when speaking to Sky Sport about a potential renewal for Ibrahimovic, who some outlets have reported could be offered a two-year deal.

"Ibrahimovic is the exception to all rules, always, he's special," Gazidis said.

"He has incredible personal and physical qualities. Ibra changes the rules. Anything is possible [in terms of a renewal], this challenge is the most romantic of his career because he has a history with this club.

"He could retire tomorrow. He has already done everything. I think he feels this challenge in a special way. He can renew, why not?"

The futures of goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and attacking midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu also remain unresolved, with both players out of contract at the end of the season.

Asked about the star duo, Gazidis added: "We will do everything possible to reach an agreement.

"We want them to stay, they are two important players for the club and great professionals.

"We will do everything possible, but the choice will also be theirs and we will respect it. I am confident that an agreement can be found."

Gazidis and Maldini endured a tumultuous time early in the former's tenure, largely due to the departure of Zvonimir Boban from the technical team and reported interest in hiring Ralf Rangnick to take over as head coach from Stefano Pioli.

A deal to bring the German to San Siro ultimately broke down and Pioli is overseeing a title charge for the Rossoneri.

Gazidis now says he and Maldini enjoy a strong relationship that he hopes will be a long one at the club.

"Initially we had different languages and cultures, now we are growing together and ours is a strong relationship," he said.

"Sometimes we disagree but it is normal.  Maldini represents the history of the club for me but this is not the reason why I chose Paolo, I chose him because I see something special in him.

"He is a man with values, modern, human and with a desire to learn. I hope he will stay here for a long time."

Milan technical director Paolo Maldini suggested Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in line to extend his contract with the Serie A leaders.

Ibrahimovic has been a revelation since returning to Milan for a second spell in January last year, the evergreen 39-year-old spearheading the club's Scudetto charge this term.

The star forward passed 500 club goals in Milan's 4-0 Serie A rout of Crotone, increasing his tally to 501 with his sixth league brace of the season on Sunday.

Ibrahimovic is one of the two players, alongside Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, to have scored the most braces in the top five European leagues in 2020-21, while the former Sweden international has netted 14 Serie A goals in 11 appearances this season - 16 across all competitions.

Out of contract at season's end, Maldini was asked about Ibrahimovic's future as Milan also look to re-sign stars Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu.

"We are one of the youngest teams in Europe and we need a leader like Ibrahimovic," Maldini told BeIN Sports.

"We tried to sign him in 2018 when he was playing for LA Galaxy.

"He's told us that the contract extension depends on his body, but if he carries on like this, I don't see why he shouldn't be continuing.

"We have three players with expiring contracts in 2022, we are working. There must be to parties happy to continue together, footballers are professional who only think about the pitch, we hope we are going to reach agreements soon."

Milan are two points clear of city rivals Inter atop the table as they prepare to visit Spezia on Saturday.

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