When Diogo Dalot signed for Manchester United, the excitement was mixed with regret at missing out on the chance to play with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The veteran striker had departed for what appeared to be a career swan song at the Los Angeles Galaxy just before a teenage Dalot arrived at Old Trafford three years ago.
”It was a little bit of a sad moment for me,” Dalot recalls in an interview with The Associated Press. ”When you play football, you always want to play with the best players and, of course, Zlatan was a reference.”
The opportunity had been missed, or so the Portuguese defender wrongly assumed.
As the right back struggled for game time in Manchester, a loan move was needed at the start of this season. Now the 21-year-old Dalot is at the heart of the defense of an AC Milan side which has been propelled to the top of the Italian league by the 39-year-old Ibrahimovic.
With 12 goals in eight league games, the Swede’s enduring quality is undisputed – and inspirational for a teammate giving his career a lift in Italy.
”He’s very demanding on ourselves,” Dalot said in a video call from Milan. ”He’s always one of the first to come in to training ground. So these kind of things help us to see that maybe we need to be as professional as him because, if you want to win as much as he won, you need to be doing this for a long time.
”And this is a very good way to see how you want be a success in football, how you want to be in 10 years or in 15 years. And it’s been a very good surprise to work with him.”
Surprising because Dalot had not envisaged leaving United – even temporarily – so soon after being acclaimed as the ”best fullback in Europe” in his age group when Jose Mourinho brought him to United from Porto in 2018.
”It was one of the sentences that I keep with me until this day,” Dalot said. ”Coming from him was even more special because we all know that is a fantastic coach, one of the best ever, and it gave me a little bit more responsibility.”
A change in manager produced a change in circumstances and Dalot fell down the pecking order under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Ibrahimovic is helping Dalot believe in himself again and improve his game.
”He can give you the confidence when he thinks you need (it),” Dalot said.
That sometimes means being brutally honest.
”’You’re not doing good enough to be at this level”’ Dalot says Ibrahimovic will tell players in training or games. ”Coming from him we need to listen.”
Especially about what it takes to win titles, something Milan has not done in Serie A since Ibrahimovic lifted the trophy in 2011 before eventually moving on to PSG, United and the LA Galaxy.
Almost halfway through the season, a resurgent Milan enjoys a three-point lead over city rival Inter and has an unexpected 10-point advantage on Juventus, which has slumped to fifth after eight successive titles.
”It will be more special (winning the title), not just because of beating Juve or Inter … but to put Milan back on the top again, winning titles after so many years,” Dalot said. ”We like this kind of pressure. We like to have people down there pushing us and paying attention to us to see, ‘OK, if you lose, we are there.’ So we like these kind of challenges.”
Dalot’s focus is on the Serie A prize. But there will be some uncertainty when the season-long loan expires whether he returns to United or secures a longer stay with Stefano Pioli’s Milan.
United is also going strongly this season, sitting top of the Premier League and looking to end its own title drought stretching back to 2013.
”I am completely focused on what is going on here,” Dalot said. ”When I go home and I can rest, I can see Manchester games, Porto games and be happy with them, because they are winning and they are doing fantastic.”
Dalot is delighted to be back on the field regularly again, playing 15 times since October and being a key part of a defense that has not conceded in four of the last five games.
”I’m a confident person. I know my qualities. I know what I can do, but then if you don’t play that’s not enough,” Dalot said. ”Feeling the grass again, feeling the games again, winning games and playing 90 minutes … it’s been fantastic.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports