SERIE A

Ibrahimovic 'certainly not a racist' but Pioli admits Milan star 'needs some energy back'

Stefano Pioli hopes Zlatan Ibrahimovic's clash with Romelu Lukaku can help to restore some of the striker's "motivation".

Ibrahimovic 'certainly not a racist' but Pioli admits Milan star 'needs some energy back'

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli insists Zlatan Ibrahimovic is "certainly not a racist" but thinks his clash with Romelu Lukaku could rekindle his best form. 

Ibrahimovic was sent off having scored the opening goal in the Rossoneri's 2-1 Coppa Italia defeat to Inter this week. 

The veteran striker earned his first of two yellow cards after a heated confrontation with former Manchester United team-mate Lukaku, in which he appeared to tell the Belgian forward: "Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey". 

It was suggested Ibrahimovic was referring to comments made in 2018 by Everton majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, who said Lukaku had declined a contract extension because a "voodoo message" told him to move to Chelsea - a transfer that never transpired. 

Some accused Ibrahimovic of racially abusing Lukaku, with the Swede responding by stating on Twitter: "In ZLATAN's world there is no place for RACISM." United midfielder Paul Pogba also tweeted to say his old team-mate was "the last person I'd think of as racist". 

Pioli on Ibrahimovic: He is determined

Ibrahimovic will serve a one-game ban for his red card but Pioli hopes a line can now be drawn under the incident as Milan focus back on Serie A.

"Ibrahimovic is determined and up for it, as he always is," Pioli said ahead of Saturday's game at Bologna. "Certain things can happen on the pitch; I'm not going to justify that, but you need to draw a line under it and move on. 

"Ibra is certainly not a racist; the club has always been on the front line in the fight against discrimination. Zlatan also needs these situations to get a bit of energy and motivation back." 

Milan's cup exit followed a 3-0 home league defeat to Atalanta that allowed Inter to close the gap on the leaders to two points. 

Pioli says back-to-back losses have not changed his view of his team's potential as he aims to return them to the Champions League. 

"We're not interested in what people are saying outside of the club," he said. "We just need to focus on ourselves, maintain a good balance, continue to work and improve. We know that opinions can change quickly in football. 

"It's useless to look back; we only need to look forwards. I haven't changed my mind on our quality. We have a good team and the ideas are there. We are able to put in consistently good and competitive performances, which we have shown up to now. 

"We're having a great season; we have 18 more points than we did at this stage last season and have closed the gap to our direct rivals.

"The second half of the season will be more complicated and hard-fought. Qualifying for Champions League football won't be easy, but we have the quality to do it."