Rafael Leao earned a place in the Serie A history books before he and Stefano Pioli confirmed Milan's breathtaking start at Sassuolo was cooked up on the training ground.

The Portuguese forward scored after just six seconds as the leaders stunned their hosts, with Milan going on to secure a 2-1 victory.

Brahim Diaz touched the ball from kick-off to Hakan Calhanoglu who charged through lines of Sassuolo players before feeding Leao, who sprinted in from the left.

Leao took two touches as he entered the penalty area before driving a powerful shot beyond Andrea Consigli, with head coach Pioli revealing it was among a handful of ploys Milan had prepared.

Pioli told Sky Sport Italia: "Let's say we have four or five kick-off situations and every now and then we alternate them.

"We wanted to approach the match well, in the last few matches we had been lacking a little bit. it was good from Calhanoglu and Leao."

Leao himself said, according to La Gazzetta Dello Sport: "Yes, we had prepared it in training. But we are Milan, this match was important for us because we had lost points in the previous matches."

Back-to-back 2-2 draws against Parma and Genoa had seen Milan lose some of their early-season momentum, and news of an injury setback for Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the eve of the Sassuolo game came as a fresh blow.

But Pioli had Milan fired up for this game, and they showed urgency from the first whistle.

"There are times when matches are worth a little more," Pioli said. "We weren't happy with the draws. Today it was very important from a mental point of view. Being able to win gives us great satisfaction."

Milan have now scored two or more goals in 15 consecutive Serie A games, the most times that has been achieved in succession in the top-five European leagues since Barcelona did so 18 times in a row in 1948.

Leao had faced pre-match criticism from Pioli over his recent performances, but the coach was smiling as the 21-year-old beat the previous fastest goal on record in Serie A - Paolo Poggi for Piacenza against Fiorentina in 2001.

A booking for Franck Kessie was his fifth in Serie A this season and triggers a suspension that means he will miss the game with Lazio at San Siro on Wednesday.

That presents Pioli with another selection issue, and the head coach would welcome additions to his squad in the January transfer market as Milan look to push for a first Scudetto since the 2010-11 season.

"If there are the right opportunities to improve the staff we will do it, otherwise we will stay like this," Pioli said. "The squad is compact and united, so it is difficult to manage so many absences."

Rafael Leao drove home the fastest goal in Serie A history to set leaders Milan on their way to a 2-1 win at Sassuolo. 

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli said on Saturday that Leao's recent performances had been "not up to standard", but there was no faulting his sharp finish after six seconds at the Citta del Tricolore stadium. 

The 21-year-old former Lille forward took a pass from Hakan Calhanoglu in his stride and, with his third touch, smashed the ball past home goalkeeper Andrea Consigli. 

Alexis Saelemaekers added a second in the 26th minute and Milan's lead rarely came under threat from sixth-placed Sassuolo until Domenico Berardi netted an 89th-minute free-kick that made for a briefly tense finish.

Pioli fielded a team with an average age of just 22 years and 313 days, Milan's second youngest line-up since the 2004-05 season, when Opta began collecting such data. 

There was no Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the team's 39-year-old leading scorer absent after suffering a calf strain in training as he prepared for a first-team return. 

But after Juventus showed they remain a part of the Scudetto conversation with an impressive 4-0 win at Parma on Saturday, it was Milan's turn to show their hand, and they had an ace up their sleeve. 

Leao put an emphatic finishing touch to Milan's immediate charge through the Sassuolo ranks, with Brahim Diaz playing the kick-off short to Calhanoglu, who raced straight towards the penalty area in what looked a well-rehearsed ploy. Calhanoglu's pass through to Leao was smashed in, leaving the home side shell-shocked and still yet to touch the ball. 

Milan thought they had a second goal in the ninth minute when Calhanoglu drove home low into the left corner from the edge of the penalty area, but a marginal offside in the build-up saw the goal disallowed after a VAR check. 

They were nevertheless in control and full value for their second goal when it arrived in the 26th minute. Theo Hernandez ran from deep inside his half down the left flank before darting infield and clipping a short pass that gave Saelemaekers a tap-in. 

Gianluigi Donnarumma made a fine diving stop to keep out a fizzing 25-yard shot from Mehdi Bourabia in the second half, before Milan threatened a third when Jens Petter Hauge's curling shot from similar range was pushed away by Consigli. 

Sassuolo had the final say as Berardi got his shot beyond the Milan wall, but the visitors survived.

Rafael Leao scored the fastest goal in Serie A history to put Milan ahead at Sassuolo on Sunday, netting after just six seconds. 

The forward put an emphatic finishing touch to a Milan charge through the Sassuolo ranks, with Brahim Diaz playing the kick-off short to Hakan Calhanoglu, who raced straight towards the penalty area. 

Calhanoglu's pass through to Leao was smashed in, leaving the home side shell-shocked. 

Milan began the game at the top of Serie A.

1 - #RafaelLeão has scored the fastest goal in Serie A (after 6 seconds), overtaking the previous record made by Paolo Poggi in December 2001 with Piacenza (8 seconds). Sprint.#SassuoloMilan

— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) December 20, 2020

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's injury setback will not have an impact on Milan's transfer plans for the January window, according to head coach Stefano Pioli.

Ibrahimovic has been out of action since sustaining an injury against Napoli on November 22, but was back involved in first-team training this week.

However, reports emerged on Saturday claiming that the 39-year-old – who has scored 10 goals in six Serie A appearances this season – had suffered a calf strain and will now miss another month.

Pioli confirmed the news in a media conference ahead of Sunday's trip to Sassuolo, though he affirmed Ibrahimovic's new problem will not change Milan's strategy heading into the transfer market.

"It was a strange day, as we were convinced he could recover in time to be in the squad tomorrow and even play a few minutes, then this happened," said Pioli, whose side have been linked with a move for out-of-favour Atalanta star Alejandro Gomez.

"I am very disappointed for him, because he was so eager to return. He'll be back stronger than ever and we have alternatives who can play.

"Ibrahimovic's injury will not change our transfer strategy, although if there is an opportunity to improve the squad, I'm sure the club will evaluate it."

Milan have drawn their last two league games, with city rivals Inter hot on their tails in second place and Juventus four points back.

Of the 11 league matches Ibrahimovic has missed since rejoining Milan, the Rossoneri have won six and drawn five.

It may not just be Ibrahimovic who Pioli is without, however, with Ante Rebic also struggling after sustaining a knock against Genoa on Wednesday, while Rafael Leao is not in good form.

Pioli continued: "The plan remains to play attacking football. Rebic hasn't scored lately, but only due to the opposition goalkeeper making great saves and some bad luck, but I am very satisfied with his contribution and movement.

"Leao struggled with that injury and spending so much time off the field can affect your tempo. His last few performances have not been up to standard.

"Rebic went off against Genoa on Wednesday because he had a problem with his foot. He's been training separately over the last couple of days and I hope he'll be ready.

"We need a great performance against Sassuolo as they are a team to be faced with a very clear head. The team won't suffer from Ibrahimovic's injury because it is a side that always attacks and creates chances anyway. It is a squad with quality throughout."

After beating Milan four times in their first six Serie A meetings, Sassuolo have since lost eight of the last eight, drawing the other two.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic said he cannot be tamed, while the evergreen Milan star insisted he is ageing better than Benjamin Button.

Ibrahimovic has shown no signs of slowing down this season, despite the 39-year-old's advancing years.

The former Manchester United, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain forward has scored 10 goals in six Serie A appearance in 2020-21 – a joint-high alongside Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Inter's Romelu Lukaku.

Ibrahimovic's exploits have helped unbeaten Milan top the table in pursuit of their first Scudetto since 2010-11, the ex-Sweden international's first spell at the club.

Asked who is less likely to be tamed, Zlatan or a lion, Ibrahimovic told UEFA.com: "Zlatan, 100 per cent.

"You can tame a lion, but you cannot tame Zlatan. It's a different animal."

When asked who is ageing better, Zlatan or Button – a fictional character – he replied: "I'm doing it better, because I'm living proof of it. Benjamin Button is just a made-up story.

"I'm the perfect profile for that movie. I'm doing the real movie, and Benjamin Button was a movie for the cinema."

"I'm 39 and with what I have done, I have no obligation to work anymore, but I still have this passion for what I'm doing," Ibrahimovic continued. "I'm never satisfied, and I always want more.

"I don't see a lot of players who are my age who were, or are, performing like I am doing. The moment a player goes above 30 is [meant to be] when they start to go down and they quit. Above 30 is when I started to become even better.

"I hear athletes from [the] US say that they spent more than one million [dollars] to keep their body in shape. I am 39. I am in shape. I perform at the highest level. I spend zero to stay in shape.

"The secret is not how much you spend, the secret is in your head – how much you want it, how much you're willing to sacrifice. That is the secret. It's the mentality and mentality doesn't cost anything."

Ibrahimovic added: "I would like to have the brain of Zlatan in a 25-year-old body! I get tired faster now, compared to when I was younger. I'm sleeping a lot because I need to recover more.

"Let's say after the games, before it probably took me one day to recover and to feel good and really fresh. Now I need between two and three days, which is normal for the age that I am.

"And as long as I can perform, I will play at a high level. The day I stop performing, I will not play anymore because I need to feel alive. I need to feel I give something back.

"I don’t want to have any advantages because I am 39 and they say 'hey, you slow down' and that. No, I want you to consider me on the world-class level and compare me to everybody else, because then I push myself even more."

Stefano Pioli feels Milan had chances to alter the course of their 2-2 draw against Genoa after missing first-half chances but believes his team are conceding too many goals in Serie A.

The Rossoneri drew 2-2 for the second match running as Davide Calabria and Pierre Kalulu each replied to goals from Mattia Destro in an exciting second half that was the antithesis of a lacklustre opening period.

Milan have conceded only 13 times in Serie A this season, tied for the fourth-best record in the league, while their four clean sheets are bettered only by three teams and just four have faced fewer shots on target.

But only one of those clean sheets has come in Milan's past nine Serie A games, conceding two or more in four of these matches, drawing on each occasion.

Head coach Pioli acknowledged the need to tighten up at the back, telling DAZN after the game: "It's a draw in a complicated game, on a difficult pitch.

"We could take the lead in the first half and the match would have changed tactically. We gave it our all and we took an important result.

"We conceded two goals without conceding [many chances]. In general, we are conceding too many goals. 

"It was a tough game, the pitch didn't allow us to be precise technically; we tried to win it till the end, unluckily we didn't make it."

Despite another draw, Milan still lead the way at the top of the table – albeit their buffer to rivals Inter is now a meagre one point.

Games against Sassuolo and Lazio precede the mid-season break but Pioli believes little will be gleaned from those encounters about how they will fare by the end of the campaign.

"I don't think the next two games will tell us where we can get; our target is to improve what we did last season, it would be a great result to qualify for the Champions League," he added.

"The next two games will be important, we come from a period with many, many games. We are only at the beginning, we can't feel tiredness until the end. We must continue like this."

Milan, who had 13 shots to Genoa's nine but both teams had four on target, were without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Simon Kjaer, Ismael Bennacer and Matteo Gabbia.

Pioli, whose side had almost 58 per cent of the possession, said such absences can alter the fluidity of the team.

"When you have five or six players out of action, the team changes its characteristics," he said. 

"We didn't have many injuries before. By the way, those who played did well."

Pierre Kalulu's late effort saw Milan rescue a 2-2 draw for the second Serie A match running as Mattia Destro's double ultimately proved in vain for lowly Genoa.

The hosts, the last side to defeat the Rossoneri in Italy's top flight back in March, led twice as ex-Milan loanee Destro scored either side of Davide Calabria's excellent equaliser at the Luigi Ferraris.

But Kalulu tapped in from Alessio Romagnoli's downward header seven minutes from time to complete a breathless second half completely at odds with an insipid opening 45.

Leaders Milan fought back from a two-goal deficit to draw 2-2 at Parma last time out and are now 24 unbeaten in the league but only a point ahead of city rivals Inter. Genoa remain in the bottom three.

Hakan Calhanoglu's agent has held "positive" talks with Milan over a new contract for the midfielder.

The Turkey international's deal expires at the end of the season and there has been speculation Manchester United are interested in a free transfer.

United could strike a pre-contract agreement with Calhanoglu as early as next month, but it appears the player is increasingly likely to stay with the Serie A leaders.

His agent, Gordon Stipic, met with Milan directors on Wednesday and is optimistic an extension can be agreed.

There are suggestions both parties are eager to tie up negotiations quickly due to the looming prospect of stricter coronavirus regulations in Italy, which could make talks more difficult.

"It was a positive meeting," Stipic told TUTTOmercatoWEB.

"We're in the negotiation phase. We'll see. We're working on it and we'll meet again.

"We'll keep in constant contact for future appointments with Milan's directors."

Calhanoglu has created 43 goalscoring chances in 11 league games this season, at least 13 more than any other player in Serie A.

In July, he became the first Milan midfielder since Kaka in 2008 to be directly involved in at least one goal in five consecutive matches.

Milan, who are unbeaten in the league this season and three points clear of Inter at the top of the table, face Genoa on Wednesday.

Is Lionel Messi set to swap Spain for France?

Paris Saint-Germain have been among the clubs linked with Messi.

And rumours suggest PSG believe they will land the Barcelona superstar.

 

TOP STORY – PSG POISED TO SIGN MESSI?

Paris Saint-Germain are preparing to announce the signing of Lionel Messi, according to FootballTransfers.

Messi, who is out of contract at the end of the season, tried to leave Barcelona at the start of 2020-21 but the six-time Ballon d'Or winner opted to remain at Camp Nou.

Now, Ligue 1 champions PSG are growing increasingly confident of luring Messi to Paris on a free transfer, having told their stores around the French capital to brace themselves for a high demand of shirt sales.

The Daily Star, however, claims Pep Guardiola's Manchester City remain optimistic of signing Messi.

 

ROUND-UP

- Premier League champions Liverpool are set to offer star defender Virgil van Dijk a new blockbuster five-year contract, reports Fabrizio Romano.

Bayern Munich are in pole position to sign RB Leipzig centre-back Dayot Upamecano but the Bundesliga champions are still undecided on outlaying such a significant sum amid the coronavirus pandemic, says Sport Bild. Upamecano has been heavily linked with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.

- According to Corriere della Sera, Inter and Milan are the main contenders to sign Atalanta star Papu Gomez. The captain and Atalanta head coach Gian Piero Gasperini have fallen out, leading to widespread reports Gomez will leave in January. Inter are the favourites to sign Gomez as they could reportedly offer Christian Eriksen in exchange. The likes of PSG, Lazio and Napoli have also emerged as possible destinations.

Hakan Calhanoglu is set to stay at Milan, reports Calciomercato. United have been linked with a move for the soon-to-be free agent.

- Romano says Sergio Ramos is likely to continue at Madrid beyond the 2020-21 season. Los Blancos captain Ramos is nearing the end of his contract, leading to links with the likes of PSG, Juventus and United.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic insisted Serie A leaders Milan need the "courage to dream" of lifting their first league trophy in 10 years.

Ibrahimovic was Milan's joint top goalscorer, netting 14 times, when the Rossoneri lifted their 18th and last Scudetto in 2011.

The 39-year-old has been in near unstoppable form this campaign, scoring 10 goals in six league matches to fire Stefano Pioli's undefeated Milan to a three-point lead over city rivals Inter atop the table after 11 rounds.

Defending champions Juventus have dominated Serie A over the past decade but Ibrahimovic is full of belief that Milan can prevent the Old Lady from clinching a 10th successive title.

"The team must have the courage to dream of winning the Scudetto, we have a long way ahead," said Ibrahimovic, who is back training ahead of Wednesday's trip to Genoa following a hamstring injury.

"The team is hungry and willing, we want even more.

"I think I transmit my charisma to my team-mates, I always want to train because I feel better.

"I tell people of my same age to believe in themselves and never give up."

Milan have not finished in Serie A's top four since 2013, the year after Ibrahimovic's departure, but the Swedish star's return to the red and black jersey midway through 2019-20 sparked a revival at San Siro.

After spells with Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and LA Galaxy, Ibrahimovic scored 10 league goals during his comeback campaign to help newly-appointed head coach Pioli achieve a sixth-placed finish.

"My arrival at Milan was a different challenge. Milan were not at the top," the two-time Serie A top goalscorer added.

"I was hoping to do well, everyone who returned to Milan for the second time could not do as well as they had done the first time.

"It was the biggest challenge for me, I told myself: 'I'll do Zlatan Ibrahimovic and change things'."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic can play for another five years and then "change the world" despite "wasting" two years in MLS, according to Mino Raiola. 

Ibrahimovic is now 39 but still performing at the highest level, leading Milan to the top of Serie A this season in his second spell with the club. 

The former Sweden striker has 10 league goals in 2020-21 - a tally only matched by Cristiano Ronaldo - and has scored with 28.6 per cent of his 35 shots. 

Indeed, of players to net multiple times in Serie A this term, Ibrahimovic has struck more regularly than anyone else, once every 53 minutes. 

That eye-catching statistic is in part due to a hamstring injury that has limited the veteran to six appearances - one fewer than Ronaldo - although he returned to training on Monday. 

Despite the minor setback, agent Raiola is confident Ibrahimovic can continue to deliver, regretting only the decision to take his client to LA Galaxy for two seasons after leaving Manchester United. 

"I saw other players who were really tired who could no longer carry on the positive energy needed," Raiola told Tuttosport while attending the 2020 Golden Boy awards. "I have never seen this tiredness in Zlatan.

"For me, he can still easily play five years, then be president of something to change the world. 

"I only regret the two years in the United States, where he wasted time. 

"I have a good relationship with him, great emotions. But it is a bit like that with all my players. 

"We have to make him believe that he is the most beautiful, the best, and so we do. Ibra is not as tough as he looks. He has a very tender heart, not for me but for others, yes."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in training with the Milan squad ahead of the Serie A leaders' trip to Genoa on Wednesday.

The Swedish striker has not featured for his club since coming off with a hamstring injury during a 3-1 win away at Napoli on November 22. 

Ibrahimovic scored twice in that game to take his tally for the season into double figures – he has managed 10 goals in Serie A in just six appearances so far this campaign. 

However, Milan have not missed him too much during his absence, recording league wins over Fiorentina and Sampdoria prior to Sunday's home draw with Parma. 

Coach Stefano Pioli had said prior to the 2-2 result at San Siro that Ibrahimovic would hopefully be able to return for the midweek game against Genoa. 

As Milan began preparations for that fixture on Monday, the club's social media team released pictures of the squad in training – and Ibrahimovic was among the group. 

Milan remain unbeaten in Serie A – in the previous three seasons when the Italian giants have not lost any of their first 11 league matches (1991-92, 1992-93 and 2003-04) they have gone on to win the Scudetto.

After the Parma result, the Rossoneri hold a three-point advantage at the summit over rivals Inter, while Napoli and reigning champions Juventus are a further point adrift of the early leaders.

Ibrahimovic has played a key role in the club's resurgence since he rejoined for a second spell in January 2020.

The 39-year-old scored 11 goals in the second half of the 2019-20 season, helping Milan qualify for the Europa League. Having progressed through the group stage this term, they will face Red Star Belgrade in the last 32 of the competition.

Erling Haaland lauded "phenomena" Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the Borussia Dortmund forward looks to the pair as inspiration for a long, successful career.

Haaland is still just 20 but has quickly established himself as one of Europe's top strikers and will collect Tuttosport's Golden Boy award on Monday.

Since joining Dortmund from Salzburg in January, the Norway international has scored 23 times in the Bundesliga - including a hat-trick on his debut against Augsburg - at a rate of one every 74 minutes.

Only Robert Lewandowski (28) and Ronaldo (27) have netted more goals in Europe's 'top five' leagues since that January 18 bow.

Juventus number seven Ronaldo is still among the best players in the world at the age of 35, while Milan's Ibrahimovic, now 39, has 19 goals over the same stretch.

Asked for his thoughts on the Serie A superstars, revealed by father Alf-Inge to be his role models, Haaland told Tuttosport: "Two champions, two phenomena.

"I was bewitched seeing them on TV. They are the idols of many footballers - including me, too.

"They are examples to imitate for the continuity that allows them to remain at the highest level for so many years."

Haaland is out until the new year with a hamstring injury, making his goalscoring return even more impressive, and Dortmund suffered in his absence on Saturday.

A 5-1 home defeat to Stuttgart was the first time BVB had lost in the five league matches they have played without Haaland since his arrival and it cost head coach Lucien Favre his job.

While Dortmund are down in fifth, Haaland has lofty aspirations for the club - including in the Champions League, where he had a joint-high eight goals in 2020.

"Winning the Champions League is obviously a great dream of mine," he said. "I want to win trophies with Dortmund.

"Right now Bayern Munich are the best team in the world and we must try to reach a higher level and beat them. We will try with all our strength."

Transfer speculation will surround Haaland as long as Dortmund are not competing for titles, but he is paying no attention to that.

"I only think about playing hard, training and improving every day," he added.

Stefano Pioli hailed the "mentality and character" of his Milan side as they recovered from two goals down to rescue a 2-2 draw in Sunday's Serie A clash with Parma.

The league leaders were heading for a first defeat in 23 league outings since March after Hernani and Jasmin Kurtic put Parma a couple of goals in front.

Milan hit the frame of the goal four times – Hakan Calhanoglu responsible for three of those – and had a goal disallowed for a narrow offside against Samu Castillejo.

But they hit back through Theo Hernandez's brace, the attacking full-back guiding in a header and then firing home in the first minute of added time.

In doing so, he became the first Milan defender to score twice in the competition since Alessandro Nesta in October 2009 against Chievo Verona.

Despite Inter, Napoli and Juventus all closing the gap with wins on Sunday, Pioli believes Milan can take positives from a game in which everything seemed to go against his side.

"Parma deserve credit for making the most of their forwards, who have a lot of pace and are good at one-on-one situations," he told Sky Sport Italia. 

"However, on the first goal, there's clearly more of us in the box than Parma players, yet we got hunched up and didn't cover the spaces.

"We had a lot of chances and should've scored earlier. It might've been a different game if we had.

"But it remains a genuine positive step forward in terms of mentality and character to get this back on track."

The Rossoneri are on the longest unbeaten run of any side in Europe's major leagues and remain on course for a first Scudetto since 2011, but Pioli accepts there is room for improvement. 

"It remains an off-night for us as we are having some difficulties, especially with injuries to [Matteo] Gabbia and [Ismael] Bennacer," he said.

"As for the game, for the first time I'd say we didn't have the right approach and were a little sluggish. 

"Parma did very well on the counter, we could've equalised earlier and didn't, but this is a team with heart and desire. It's fine.

"Clearly, we wanted to win and we had the chances to do so. Parma had two shots on goal, but we also made mistakes on those two goals.

"We weren't as sharp in the second half, but that can happen when you are putting so much spirit into the chase, throwing men into the box and trying to get it back on track."

Pioli refused to blame fatigue for the draw, with Milan dropping points in Serie A for only a third time this season.

"I think the team is in good shape, both physically and mentally," he said. 

"I changed practically all the players from the Europa League game on Thursday, so they can't have been tired because of that.

"I don't think we'll have much time during the Christmas break to put some fuel in the tank in training, especially as we've got Juventus and Atalanta straight after the restart. 

"It'll be useful to rest more mentally than physically for a few days."

Milan are three points better off than second-place Inter, with Napoli and reigning champions Juventus a further point back.

However, when asked if he would sign off on a top-four finish and a place in the Champions League next season, Pioli joked: "The only thing I'll sign is a new contract!

"Milan haven't been in the Champions League for a long time, so it's only right we are ambitious and proved we can fight it out with everyone. We just have to continue like this."

Theo Hernandez struck twice as Milan recovered from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Parma and keep their unbeaten start to the Serie A season intact.

The hosts looked to be heading for a first defeat in 23 league outings - and a first in 11 games this term - after Hernani and Jasmin Kurtic had put Parma in control.

But Milan showed exactly why they are top thanks to a couple of goals from Hernandez - the equaliser in the 91st minute - as they dug deep in Sunday's clash at San Siro.

The point was the least Stefano Pioli's men deserved, having hit the frame of the goal four times - Hakan Calhanoglu responsible for three of those - and had a strike disallowed between the visitors' two goals.

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