Ibra bristles with ambition as Milan seek Mr X

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It has come to that point of pre-season when the main players in the upcoming title race look to send out a strong signal that they are to be taken seriously.
Inter, Juventus and AS Roma are all getting to grips with working under a new coach and new systems, while Napoli are easing their way into the friendly circuit, but AC Milan look to be that bit ahead of the pack in terms of preparation and self-belief.

It's not surprising really, considering that the champions are a settled unit; their only immediate reinforcements so far are in the back-line with the arrival of Philippe Mexes and Taye Taiwo – although they have also astutely signed one for the future in talented teenage striker Stephan El Shaarawy.

There is also the Mr. X to consider – that missing piece whom the Rossoneri hierarchy believe will turn the team into the masters of the football universe once again. There is much speculation on who that name will turn out to be. Marek Hamsik, Javier Pastore, Cesc Fabregas, Bastian Schweinsteiger and even Ricky Kaka have been mentioned. Riccardo Montolivo – a target to replace Andrea Pirlo – doesn't have the X factor.

While the majority of Serie A teams have been encamped in mountain retreats in the Alps, Milan have done as they do every year: prepare in the familiar surroundings of their Milanello training complex. However, on Monday the team ventured out of Italy for their first full friendly of the summer. (Their previous run-out, a 12-goal blitz of amateur side Solbiatese, barely counts.)

There was plenty of symbolism in the opposition and the stadium. Munich's Allianz Arena will host next May's Champions League Final, and hosts Bayern Munich could make it much harder for Milan to get there: if the Germans qualify for the group stages of the competition along with Arsenal, that will relegate the Rossoneri to pot two when the draw is held at the end of August.

There's still plenty of time for Massimiliano Allegri to fine-tune his players. Against a lively Bayern, the team was unsurprisingly a yard off the pace and lost on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

However, one player who looked sharp was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who scored with his first touch after four minutes in Milan’s first foray across the halfway line.

Looking relaxed (honestly), tanned and almost Jack Sparrow-like in ponytail and goatee, the Swede was at his swashbuckling best during his 45 minutes on the pitch: the darting runs into space, the familiar stop and drawback, a bit of defender-bumping.

It was no surprise that he didn't appear for the second half. Allegri’s aim this season will be to keep his star turn happy and he's already gaining dividends from giving his main man another week off before returning to training.

Last August, Ibra arrived at Milan from a turbulent time at Barcelona and settled with gusto to the task of proving Pep Guardiola wrong. However, it became clear that the Rossoneri were frequently too reliant on his ability to get them out of a sticky situation, and by the second half of the season the physical and mental strain began to tell.

This season, Allegri and his backroom staff will want the big man in prime condition heading into spring months, especially if everything goes according to plan for the knockout stages of the Champions League: reclaiming the trophy is the club’s main objective.

Antonio Cassano was also excused for a further seven days but that has made little difference to his general languid approach. Tellingly soon after Ibra’s opener, the barrel-chested Bari boy missed a good opportunity to double the score when set up by his strike partner.

Cassano may have to play the bit-part once again this year behind Alexandre Pato and Robinho, but there is no doubt who is still set for star billing – even when the elusive Mr X is finally revealed.