Neither Milan nor Inter could establish a lead in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final tie, as the Serie A title contenders played out a goalless draw at San Siro.

Rafeal Leao caused problems for Inter in a match where chances were at a premium, but the Rossoneri were unable to make their superiority count against their out-of-form city rivals.

With Italy's domestic cup not following UEFA's example of removing the away goals rule, however, the stalemate will certainly be more kindly looked upon on the red side of Milan, who are level on points with Napoli at the top and two ahead of Inter in a fierce race for the Scudetto.

Alexis Saelemaekers tested Samir Handanovic during a frantic start after the stadium observed a heartfelt message from Milan's Ukrainian legend Andriy Shevchenko, who scored in their last Coppa Italia final win in 2003.

Milan's Theo Hernandez shot wide after a trademark burst forward, while Alessio Romagnoli denied Inter with a superb defensive header on 20 minutes before limping out of the contest injured.

Stefano Pioli's men enjoyed the better of the first period, with Rade Krunic shooting over from a great position and the lively Leao troubling Inter in an otherwise uninspiring opening 45 minutes.

Manchester United face the prospect of losing key midfielder Paul Pogba on a free transfer at the end of the campaign.

The France international is into the final four months of his existing deal and there are few indications that he is prepared to extend his terms at Old Trafford.

And in a further blow for United, they could see Pogba head to one of their domestic top-flight rivals.


TOP STORY – POGBA OPEN TO PREMIER LEAGUE STAY

The Telegraph reports that Pogba, who rejoined United from Juventus in a big-money deal in 2016, is prepared to wait until the end of the season before deciding on his future.

Signing a new deal with United is said to remain an option, but Pogba will not be short of options should he become available to sign on a free – albeit with big wages to factor in.

The report indicates that the 28-year-old will weigh up any interest from fellow Premier League clubs, with Chelsea and Manchester City having previously been linked.


ROUND-UP

- It is shaping up to be a busy transfer window for United as a number of other players are also out of contract. According to Ekrem Konur, Edinson Cavani and Juan Mata are attracting strong interest from clubs in the Middle East.

- Jesse Lingard is another who could be on his way out of Old Trafford, though The Express claims that the England international is not considering a free transfer to Tottenham. Lingard would reportedly prefer to move abroad ahead of next season.

- Arsenal have joined Everton and Wolves in the race to sign Rafael Leao from Milan, according to La Repubblica. The 22-year-old is enjoying his best campaign to date at San Siro, having registered double figures for goals.

- Italian outlet Tuttosport suggests that Juventus are pushing ahead with plans to sign Nicolo Zaniolo from Serie A rivals Roma, who are supposedly prepared to accept an offer in the region of €40million for a player with two years to run on his deal.

- Leeds United's in-demand winger Raphinha is holding off talks over a new contract at Elland Road, suggests GOAL. The Brazil international has previously been touted as a target for Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain.

Chelsea have been crowned European and world champions since Thomas Tuchel's appointment just over 12 months ago.

The Blues, however, finished fourth in the Premier League last season.

Chelsea are third this term but 16 points behind leaders Manchester City with a game in hand, and it seems recruitment is in the offing.

TOP STORY – BLUES SET TO SPLASH THE CASH

Chelsea are set for an off-season transfer splash as they prepare to back Tuchel fresh from their Club World Cup triumph, according to The Telegraph, 

The Blues have their sights firmly set on signing long-term target Jules Kounde from Sevilla as a priority in the upcoming off-season.

Chelsea are also interested in West Ham United's England international Declan Rice and Monaco's 22-year-old French midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni.


ROUND-UP

- Football London reports Arsenal are plotting a move for Chelsea forward Armando Broja, who is currently on loan at Southampton. The Gunners are short on attacking options after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's exit and with Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah running down contracts.

- Fichajes also claims that Arsenal are interested in Milan forward Rafael Leao, along with Newcastle United.

Barcelona are trying to agree new deals with star young pair Gavi and Ronald Araujo amid interest from Liverpool and Manchester United, reports ESPN.

Juventus are willing to listen to offers for Adrien Rabiot and Alex Sandro according to La Gazzetta dello Sport.

- Fichajes claims that West Ham want to sign Lille defender Sven Botman, Villarreal left-back Pervis Estupinan and Real Sociedad centre-back Robin Le Normand.

Rafael Leao was likened to Thierry Henry by Milan head coach Stefano Pioli after firing his side to a slender victory against Sampdoria.

The Portugal international scored the only goal of the game eight minutes into Sunday's clash at San Siro to send Milan top of Serie A.

Leao controlled a pass from Mike Maignan – the first Milan keeper to assist a league goal since Dida in 2006 – powered past Bartosz Bereszynski and coolly converted.

He now has 10 goals for the season in all competitions, making him the Rossoneri's joint-leading goalscorer alongside Olivier Giroud.

That is already three goals more than Leao managed in 39 appearances last season, and four more than in his first season at San Siro in 2019-20.

Of those 10 goals this season, seven have been scored in Serie A and four of them have been the opening goal of the match.

Pioli has been pleased with Leao's development and is confident there is more to come from the 22-year-old striker.

"I believe he can always do better, he must not be satisfied," Pioli said at his post-match news conference. "He has the qualities to reach the top of Europe and the world.

"He reminds me of Henry, but it is true that Rafa must be himself. Leao is an extraordinary player, but he mustn't rest on his laurels."

Milan took full advantage of Inter's 1-1 draw with Napoli on Saturday to leapfrog both sides into top spot with their win over Sampdoria.

The Rossoneri are two points in front of Napoli and one better off than Inter, who have a game in hand to play.

Pioli's side have gained 55 points from their opening 25 matches – in the era of three points for a win, they have had so many only in 2003-04 (64).

But while his side occupy top spot in a tight battle for the Scudetto, Pioli insisted he is not yet thinking about ending Milan's 11-year wait for a league title.

"Our goal does not change," he said. "We printed last year's standings at the beginning of the season and our goal is to improve on the 79 points collected last season.

"We had a perfect week and I'm happy for the guys who really gave everything, playing with intensity and determination, which allowed us to achieve these results. 

"We also know that the championship is still long: let's concentrate as we have always done to better prepare for the next match to get the best out of it."

 

Milan may be flying high in Serie A and through to the Coppa Italia semi-finals, but not every player is in the good books of supporters.

Franck Kessie appeared to be targeted by the club's ultras on Sunday amid suggestions he is not planning to sign a new contract, with his current one set to expire in July.

A banner was unfurled at San Siro that read: "Those who love Milan show it with facts; cordial goodbyes to those who are dissatisfied."

Kessie was also booed by some supporters during the warm-ups, which Pioli was not pleased with.

"I heard it. I don't think it's the right thing because we need everyone. The past teaches us it is the attitudes and behaviours of the players that make the difference," he said. 

"When I train, I don't care if he has renewed or if it's about to expire. I know these players and I see them, I see how they behave. 

"As long as they have the right attitudes, I will put them on the pitch. The Milan fans have a great heart and a great passion and are giving us great support."

Rafael Leao's early goal proved the difference as Milan beat Sampdoria 1-0 at San Siro on Sunday to climb to the top of Serie A.

Saturday's 1-1 draw between Inter and Napoli provided Milan with the opportunity to leapfrog both sides and they did exactly that without ever being at their best against Samp.

Leao calmly converted inside eight minutes after being assisted by keeper Mike Maignan and that was enough for the hosts, who have now won three in a row in all competitions.

Milan are two points clear of third-place Napoli and one point better off than reigning champions Inter, who still have a game in hand to play.

 

Milan had collected just one point from their past two home matches but started brightly and took the lead early on through Leao's 10th goal of the campaign.

The Portugal international controlled a long pass from Maignan, drove away from Bartosz Bereszynski into the opposition box and coolly fired away from Wladimiro Falcone.

Falcone produced a fine one-handed save to keep out a powerful Junior Messias drive and the Milan midfielder flashed another attempt narrowly wide the other side of half-time.

Sampdoria had a brief moment on top but the big chances continued to fall Milan's way, with Olivier Giroud twice being denied by the visiting keeper from a volley and a header.

The visitors never truly looked like finding a leveller, though, with Stefano Pioli's side seeing out the job to climb to the summit.

 

What does it mean? Tight at the top

After following up a late 2-1 comeback win over Inter with a 4-0 Coppa Italia quarter-final victory against Lazio in midweek, this latest result caps a fine week for Milan.

The Rossoneri will end a gameweek top of Serie A for only the second time this season in what is by some distance the tightest title race in Europe's top five leagues.

As for relegation-threatened Sampdoria, this was their 67th Serie A defeat to Milan – only against Inter (70) have they lost more games in the competition.

Route-one Rossoneri

Leao profited from Maignan's quick thinking to release the ball early for Milan's early breakthrough goal.

Maignan is the eighth goalkeeper to assist a goal in Europe's top five leagues this term, and the first Milan shot-stopper to do so in Serie A since Dida against Ascoli in 2006.

Giroud awakening

Milan's in-form striker had scored braces in back-to-back matches heading into this contest but simply could not find a way past man-of-the-match Falcone.

Giroud had five shots in total with an expected goals (xG) return of 0.40 without finding the net, compared to one shot and one goal for Leao, who had an xG of 0.33.

What's next?

Milan travel to Serie A's bottom side Salernitana next Saturday, while Sampdoria host Empoli the same day.

Rafael Leao says Milan's sights are firmly set on lifting the Coppa Italia following their thumping quarter-final win over Lazio.

The Rossoneri reached the semi-finals of the competition after putting the Biancocelesti to the sword 4-0 in San Siro.

Leao and Franck Kessie were on target either side of an Olivier Giroud double as Stefano Pioli’s side built on the momentum from their Derby della Madonnina victory over Inter on Saturday.

Milan subsequently set up a rematch with their neighbours in the last four of the Coppa Italia, in which they have now won 13 of their last 18 home games.

And Leao, who also assisted the first of Giroud’s brace, says he and his team-mates have high expectations after the Portugal international found the net for the second successive round.

"After the derby – a very important game for us – we arrived for tonight fired up, and I thought we had an extraordinary performance. It was the right result," he told Sport Mediaset.

"Now we're in the semi-final, the Coppa Italia is a competition Milan wants to win. 

"I am always ready to help my team with goals or assists, but the most important thing is that the team got into the semi-final."

Pioli also heaped praise on the performance of Milan, who are full of confidence having now won six of their last eight matches – including the extra-time success over Genoa in the previous round of the Coppa – in all competitions.

"We made the most of the derby victory to give ourselves even more energy, belief and conviction," the head coach added.

"The whole atmosphere is very positive, we were focused and in control for the full 90 minutes.

"These are always special games to prepare and very stimulating. The Coppa Italia is a competition both clubs want to win, so we will try to give our best against opponents we know are very strong."

Stefano Pioli said he was unhappy with his attempts to prepare Milan for Thursday's Coppa Italia clash with Genoa.

The Rossoneri were taken to extra time at San Siro before they eventually progressed to the quarter-finals with a 3-1 victory.

Genoa, with just one Serie A win all season and no Coppa victories over Milan since 1936-37, enjoyed an encouraging first half and took the lead through Leo Ostigard's header 17 minutes in.

It looked as though coach Andriy Shevchenko would pull off a shock against his old side until Olivier Giroud headed in an equaliser with 16 minutes of normal time left.

Milan had by this point taken charge of the contest and deservedly went ahead through Rafael Leao, whose cross looped in off the far post, before Alexis Saelemaekers added a fine third.

While Pioli was pleased with his players' response to falling behind, the Milan coach blamed their ineffective first-half display on his own attempted preparation.

"I'm not satisfied with my work," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"If the whole team doesn't get the approach to the match right, it means the coach was not good at stimulating them from a mental point of view.

"In the first half, we struggled and we played without rhythm. We deserved to go behind. Then, it's true that we reacted well; it's the sign of important growth in terms of character and the mental side of this team.

"I'm disappointed because I thought I prepared the team well. I didn't succeed there."

Milan's poor first half was compounded when defender Fikayo Tomori limped off, and Pioli will now anxiously await further medical checks.

"He felt something strange in his knee," he said. "We're waiting a few days for some more diagnoses, but we hope to have all those on Monday. We have quite a limited group in terms of numbers."

Leao, who has been directly involved in four goals in his first three games of 2021, was delighted to inspire another turnaround – even if his goal was unintentional.

The Portugal international admitted: "I wanted to cross because we have someone so good at heading [Giroud] with Ibra [Zlatan Ibrahimovic], and when I can't shoot, I try to cross.

"I try to give my best; today, I did so. We won and I scored."

Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao played crucial roles as Milan comfortably beat 10-man Venezia 3-0 on Sunday to return to the summit of Serie A.

Stefano Pioli's men never looked in danger of dropping points at Stadio Pierluigi Penzo and were good value for a third straight Serie A victory.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – teed up by Leao – got the ball rolling inside two minutes as he equalled Cristiano Ronaldo's record of scoring against 80 different teams in Europe's top five leagues this century.

Leao released Hernandez to make it 2-0 early in the second half, with the French defender wrapping the win up soon after with a penalty – which resulted in Michael Svoboda's dismissal – for his third goal of the season against Venezia.

Milan swiftly took charge as the lively Leao raced into the left side of the box and played the ball right across the face of goal for Ibrahimovic to tap in.

Further chances arrived for Milan, with Leao, Hernandez and Alessandro Florenzi forcing Sergio Romero into saves, though there was little the Venezia goalkeeper could do when it came to the visitors scoring their second.

Leao was involved again, feeding Hernandez's run in behind the defence and the left-back smashed past the helpless Romero.

Hernandez put the game beyond Venezia just before the hour, expertly picking out the top-right corner from 12 yards after Michael Svoboda handled – seemingly accidentally – on the line, earning himself a red card.

It sealed a routine win for Milan, with Pioli marking his 400th Serie A match as a coach in style. He is the eighth manager to reach the milestone in the competition.

 

What does it mean? Milan keep pressure on Inter

This was very much a case of Milan getting the job done with minimal fuss – they were very comfortable throughout and impressed despite being without numerous important players.

As such, they open up a two-point lead at the top of the table. Of course, Inter – who face Lazio later on Sunday – have two games in hand, but there is no denying Milan's position is a nice one to be in.

There is no guarantee Inter will win their two bonus games. Even if they do, a four-point deficit is by no means impossible to claw back.

Hernandez leads from the back

Several Milan players impressed but Hernandez was the standout. He got forward so often from left-back that his five shots ended up being more than anyone else – similarly, his expected goals (1.86), shots on target and big chances (both three) were highs for the match, while only Leao (seven) and Ibrahimovic (six) had more than Hernandez's four touches in the box.

Add to that his two key passes (bettered by just Leao), and it shows him in a very good light indeed.

A difficult day for Svoboda

It was a strange game for Svoboda. One moment he would show great composure, cleverly spinning away from Ibrahimovic, but then the next he would do something clumsy.

While the red card may have been slightly harsh, as the ball seemed to hit his thigh first, it was his error – passing the ball to Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box – that led to the situation anyway.

What's next?

Milan are in Coppa Italia action on Wednesday as they host Genoa, before then welcoming Spezia to San Siro in Serie A four days later. Venezia continue their fight against relegation in a week's time at home to Empoli after visiting Atalanta in the cup in midweek.

Milan director Paolo Maldini is eager to learn from past mistakes by tying down Theo Hernandez, Rafael Leao and Ismael Bennacer to new deals.

The trio, who have been regulars for Stefano Pioli's Scudetto-chasing side this term, are under contract at San Siro until the end of the 2023-24 campaign.

However, Milan have learned the hard way about the risks associated with allowing players to run down their contracts in recent times.

Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu departed on free transfers ahead of this season, with the latter joining Milan's fierce rivals Inter.

The Rossoneri also risk losing Franck Kessie without receiving a fee at the end of the campaign, but Maldini is hopeful that will soon be a thing of the past.

"It's not always easy to reach an agreement with players, as we have seen with Donnarumma, Kessie and Calhanoglu " Maldini told reporters on Saturday. 

"But talks are well underway with Theo, as they are with Ismael, and we are talking to Rafa. The intention is to renew with all three soon."

 

Bennacer has featured in 24 of Milan's 26 matches this season, while Hernandez and Leao have been used 21 and 20 times respectively in all competitions.

Leao has five goals and one assist in Serie A this term and ranks third in the division for both dribbles attempted (69) and dribbles completed (37).

Hernandez leads the way for assists among defenders in the Italian top flight this season with five, meanwhile, and Bennacer ranks fifth for successful passes per 90 minutes (66.41) among players to have started at least seven times.

Maldini, speaking at the Associazione Italiana Milan Clubs event, added: "These are all young players and we naturally believe they can continue to offer Milan a great deal."

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli has compared Rafael Leao to a young Thierry Henry following his impressive 26-minute cameo against Roma, insisting the sky is the limit for the forward.

After a month on the sidelines with a thigh injury, the Portugal international returned as a substitute during Milan’s 3-1 win at San Siro.

The 22-year-old wasted no time in making a telling impact; demonstrating tremendous pace to break away from the visiting defence and score the third goal to wrap up the points.

Leao also earned a penalty for the hosts in the dying moments following another blistering run, although Zlatan Ibrahimovic failed to convert from the spot.

The former Lille forward has now netted five goals in Serie A this season, with only Ibrahimovic (seven) doing so more often for the Rossoneri.

He has also attempted 69 dribbles in the Italian top-flight this term; a tally only bettered by Nicolo Zaniolo (78) and Felipe Anderson (77).

His style of play has drawn comparisons from his coach with former Juventus forward Henry, who won the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League and a further five domestic titles during a glittering career. 

"Leao reminds me so much of Henry at the beginning of his career, when he started from the left," Pioli said.

"He has the talent to get to the top of the world, but talent alone is not enough.

"He's getting close to 100 per cent, he still can't be [fully fit] and will need minutes. 

"He has to work with a lot of ambition; he can get to be a really strong player on the European and world scene."

Veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss Milan's Serie A game with Empoli on Wednesday due to a knee injury.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli confirmed the 40-year-old Swedish forward's absence along with Rafael Leao leaving him short of attacking options.

Ibrahimovic has netted seven league goals this term for Milan, who have only managed one point from their past two games, slipping four points behind leaders Inter in the league

"[Leao] won’t be there tomorrow, he’ll be back against Roma. Ibrahimovic won’t be there tomorrow because of an overload on his knee," Pioli told reporters.

Pioli was more positive about captain Alessio Romagnoli's prospects of playing, along with Theo Hernandez after illness amid an injury crisis at the club, without Simon Kjaer, Davide Calabria, Ante Rebic and Pietro Pellegri also out.

"Theo has become more complete, now he does the defensive phase better too," Pioli said.

"He gives us a lot on the attacking side. He’s better, I hope he’ll be in top condition tomorrow."

Pioli added that he paid little attention to the criticism levelled at his side lately, following Sunday's 1-0 home loss to Napoli who leapfrogged them into second spot.

"I read little, but some things are useful to improve," he said. "Against Napoli, Milan played a good match.

"We make mistakes that are not allowing us to get results, clearly we need to do something more. We need more quality."

Pioli added: "When results don’t come it’s right to be less calm, but also more determined.

"We have to think about tomorrow’s game, we want to get back on track after a home defeat. We wanted to score more points in the first half of the season than we did last year. It won’t be possible, but we want the three points tomorrow."

Milan have 39 points after 18 games, but have only collected eight points from their past seven league games.

Barcelona are struggling financially but Xavi is desperate to reinforce his attack following Sergio Aguero's retirement.

Ferran Torres and Edinson Cavani are believed to top Barca's transfer list heading into the January window.

It could be a busy month ahead for the LaLiga outfit.

 

TOP STORY – TORRES, CAVANI TO BARCA?

Manchester City's Ferran Torres and Manchester United forward Edinson Cavani are priority objectives for Barcelona, according to Marca.

Barca continue to be linked with Spain international Torres as Xavi attempts to bolster the embattled LaLiga giants.

Cavani has also emerged as a top target after Sergio Aguero retired from football and the duo could reportedly arrive in January.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail claims Arsenal are open to selling Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang next month, but the Gunners are more likely to move on from the former skipper at the end of the season. Aubameyang has been stripped of the captaincy and linked with Barca and Juventus.

Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt are eyeing Yusuf Demir as Diario Sport reports Barca have decided to cut short the 18-year-old's loan spell from Rapid Vienna.

Rafael Leao is poised to sign a contract extension with Milan until 2026, per Nicolo Schira.

- Calciomercato says Arsenal have not given up on signing Juve attacker Dejan Kulusevski. The Sweden international has also been linked to London rivals Tottenham.

Barca are monitoring United sensation Mason Greenwood, reports El Nacional. England international Greenwood is highly rated at Old Trafford.

- Jeunes Footeux says Liverpool have joined the race to sign Lille star Jonathan David. The Canada international is reportedly wanted by Arsenal, Inter and Paris Saint-Germain.

What does the future hold for Kylian Mbappe?

The Paris Saint-Germain forward has long been tipped to join Real Madrid.

Madrid are reportedly preparing another approach for the France forward.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID PUSHING FOR MBAPPE

Real Madrid will make another move for Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, according to the front page of Friday's Mundo Deportivo.

Madrid have made no secret of their interest, while Mbappe – who will become a free agent at the end of the campaign – revealed he wanted to leave PSG for Los Blancos at the start of the season.

With Mbappe's contract winding down, LaLiga giants Madrid are stepping up their pursuit.

 

ROUND-UP  

- Mundo Deportivo and Sport claim Barcelona are closing in on the signing for Manchester City attacker Raheem Sterling. The England international has found himself down the pecking order in Manchester.

Arsenal are interested in Fiorentina star Dusan Vlahovic, but there have been no talks with the Serbia international's agents, reports Fabrizio Romano. Vlahovic is also wanted by City, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Inter and Tottenham.

- Staying at Emirates Stadium, Gianluca Di Marzio says Arsenal are ready to make a move for Juventus sensation Dejan Kulusevski.

Roma, Milan, Atalanta and Napoli are eyeing Sassuolo winger Jeremie Boga, per Foot Mercato.

- Milan are readying contract renewals for Theo Hernandez, Ismael Bennacer and Rafael Leao, claims Gazzetta dello Sport.

- According to The Sun, Manchester United are hoping to beat Barca to Milan midfielder Franck Kessie on a free transfer. Kessie has also been linked with PSG, Arsenal, Tottenham, Inter and Atletico.

"There is a great talent here. He has a great future but it all depends on him," Zlatan Ibrahimovic said of Rafael Leao after Milan beat neighbours Inter in the derby last October.

Ibrahimovic knows what it takes to reach the top better than most.

There has been no doubt about Leao's quality, the 22-year-old has pace to burn and an arsenal of attacking weapons up his sleeve. But he has split opinion since being prised from Lille in 2019 – a result of mixed performances amid hype and expectations after Milan made a significant investment.

However, after an inconsistent start in the north of Italy, Leao is now flourishing under the guidance of Zlatan and Stefano Pioli as part of the Rossoneri dream of conquering Serie A for the first time in over a decade.

Deployed as a left-sided wide forward or lone striker, Leao has showcased his ability with the ball at his feet, leading the league this season in average carry progresses (9.1 metres), shot-ending carries (14), goal-ending carries (two) and total chance created carries (17) – Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne and Juventus star Federico Chiesa are just some of the names left behind on those lists.

A key member of Milan's Scudetto charge, Leao has a chance to further enhance his growing reputation on the big stage when city rivals Milan and champions Inter meet in a blockbuster Derby della Madonnina on Sunday.

Another off the long list of Sporting CP's famed production line, Leao dazzled in Lisbon, where he drew comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo before his time at Estadio Jose Alvalade ended abruptly in 2018. After players and coaches were sensationally attacked by fans at the club's training facility, Leao terminated his contract prior to moving to Lille on a free transfer.

 

"The first time I saw Rafael was when I took the job as the technical director of the Sporting academy. Every time I saw Rafael in his first few sessions for the Under-17s, he was different and he was special. You know, at Sporting, we've created so many good players – like Ronaldo and [Luis] Figo. Because of that, we are qualified to see when we have special talents in front of our eyes. Then it was easy to see, Rafael was different from the others," Luis Martins – Leao's first coach at Sporting – told FTF.

After eight goals and two assists in one season with Lille, Milan came calling and splashed out around €30million to usher in a new era for the Italian powerhouse, desperately craving a return to their glorious past after years in the wilderness.

Following a tough start to life under Marco Giampaolo, Leao showed glimpses when Pioli stepped into the Rossoneri hotseat, but he was far from convincing, proving a frustrating figure due to the consensus that he lacked consistency.

Leao only managed one goal in his first 19 appearances for Milan across all competitions. While he ended his debut campaign with six Serie A goals at an average of 232 minutes per goal and a sole assist, there were already questions whether the Portuguese was a future star or a gamble that hadn't paid off.

The key takeaway was Leao's involvement in Milan play. In 2019-20, he was the orchestrator of just 58 sequences in open play. In those 31 appearances, not one of those sequences started and ended in a goal. For context, he tallied nine goals and six assists the following season.

A raw talent finding his feet, Leao shot conversion rate was 17.7 per cent, well down on the 27.6 per cent mark he reached the season prior with Lille.

"It's true, I expected more from him tonight. When coming on, he was meant to give changes of pace, fresh energy, work with the team," Pioli said after a loss to Lazio in November 2019 as Leao was eventually linked with a move away heading into 2020-21. "He has a lot of potential, but he absolutely has to do more. His contribution tonight was not up to his standards."

 

Leao has seemingly heeded the advice of those around him, delivering on a more regular basis just as his team-mates are under Pioli's watchful eye.

Capable of delivering an incredible pass, Leao has mastered the art of attacking space with his blistering pace and it has well and truly come to the fore since 2020, with his 21 dribbles this season only exceeded by Sassuolo's Jeremie Boga (24) among forwards. Leao has also scored the most goals from fast breaks in Serie A (three).

Despite not yet having a fixed position at Milan, Leao's movement – predominantly on the left flank – has him first for carries with a shot (14), carries with a goal (two) and fourth for total carries by distance (1995.79) in the league this season.

"The Leao project goes on regardless of the role. He continues his growth and maturation, as is normal for such a young player," Pioli said in April.

"Then it is difficult to establish what Rafael's final role will be. The growth of a player allows you to find a job and a position. The important thing is the growth of its value, then we will evaluate the position along the way."

Leao's rise and development has been evident since the turn of the year, having become the second-youngest foreign player to score 10-plus Serie A goals for Milan back in January, older only than Alexandre Pato.

No one has scored more goals for Milan this term – level with France World Cup-winning striker Olivier Giroud on four goals through 11 matchdays – than Leao, who has outperformed his xG (2.6) while scoring every 205 minutes in Italy's top flight (more frequent than the likes of Chiesa, Tammy Abraham and Alvaro Morata among forwards) with a shots to goal conversion rate of 18.2 per cent.

It's not just the goals when it comes to the new and improved version of Leao. The two-time Portugal international has become more of a team player, leading the way at San Siro in attacking sequence involvements (40) across shots (25), chances created (seven) and build-up to shot (eight), ahead of Alexis Saelemaekers (38), Davide Calabria (33), Brahim Diaz (30), Ante Rebic (24) and Theo Hernandez (24) in 2021-22.

Leao has gone from prospect to genuine star, and as he takes centre stage in one of football’s most historic fixtures, the sky is the limit.

Milan moved to the Serie A summit as Ismael Bennacer and Zlatan Ibrahimovic struck late to hand them a pulsating 4-2 win over nine-man Bologna.

Rafael Leao and Davide Calabria scored either side of Adama Soumaoro's dismissal to give the Rossoneri a healthy advantage at the interval.

That was wiped out in the space of seven minutes at the start of the second period, however, with an Ibrahimovic own goal and a Musa Barrow strike restoring parity at the Stadio Renato Dall'Ara.

Bologna had a second man sent off before the hour mark, Roberto Soriano given a straight red card for a late challenge, and Stefano Pioli's Milan landed a memorable three points thanks to fine late strikes from Bennacer and Ibrahimovic.

Leao put Milan ahead in the 16th minute with a deflected strike, before Soumaoro was shown a red card for bringing down a clean-through Rade Krunic just outside the area four minutes later.

Milan took advantage of their numerical superiority in the 35th minute, Calabria lashing home a second from 15 yards.

The hosts stormed back at the start of the second period, though, with Ibrahimovic – making his first start since May 9 – heading into his own net four minutes after the interval to give Sinisa Mihajlovic's side hope.

Barrow then remarkably drew Bologna level in the 52nd minute, slotting past Ciprian Tatarusanu after being played in by Soriano.

Rossoblu captain Soriano was then given his marching orders after a VAR review six minutes later for an ugly challenge on Fode Ballo-Toure.

The hosts held firm until the 84th minute when Bennacer powered into the bottom-left corner from 20 yards, while Ibrahimovic added gloss to the scoreline with a whipped finish from the same distance six minutes later.

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