Milan boss Stefano Pioli defended his decision to start with Rafael Leao on the bench after his struggling team went down 1-0 to Inter in Sunday's derby.

Last season's champions sit sixth in Serie A after 21 games, in danger of failing to qualify for next season's Champions League unless they buck up their ideas.

They have lost four games in a row, with losses to Inter in the Supercoppa and Serie A sandwiching a 4-0 drubbing by Lazio and a 5-2 mauling at home by Sassuolo.

It was league duty on Sunday, and Leao was only a substitute, despite being a two-goal hero in September when Milan took the derby spoils 3-2 to keep pace with early bolters Napoli.

While Napoli have kept up their early frantic pace, and now sit 13 points clear of second-placed Inter, Milan have lost all momentum.

Pioli began against Inter with former Liverpool fringe man Divock Origi alongside Olivier Giroud in attack, abandoning the partnership early in the second half when the ineffective Origi was hauled off and Leao made his entrance.

The skilful Portuguese forward almost teed up an equaliser for Giroud, but the French striker's control was awful and the chance was lost, but that moment of fast-paced dribbling excellence highlighted Leao's threat.

"He has enormous potential," said Pioli, "but I chose to play with two centre-forwards who are closer vertically to put Inter's defence in difficulty, even if we didn't succeed.

"I trust a lot in Leao, even if he didn't start from the beginning. The choices I made are the best for what I saw during the week, for what the preparation for the match was and for the positions I wanted to fill."

With the benefit of hindsight, Pioli said he would "do it again" when asked about Leao's omission.

In all, Milan have not won for seven games, and they face Torino on Friday before a Champions League tussle with Tottenham the following Tuesday.

Tottenham's former Inter boss Antonio Conte may be licking his lips at that prospect, with Milan's defending leaving plenty to be desired in recent weeks.

Lautaro Martinez headed in Hakan Calhanoglu's corner for the only goal of the derby, and Pioli accepted his players were found lacking.

"Unfortunately we found ourselves unprepared once again on a dead ball," he said. "Up to that moment, we were working well as a team. We did better in the second half."

Pioli knows the drastic slide in form has left many Milan supporters agog, and he said: "The fans have every right to criticise, the last few performances haven't been up to par."

Yet Pioli still has the support of the dressing room, according to midfielder Rade Krunic.

Krunic told DAZN: "If you lose such an important match there are few positive things. The only thing to take away is the reaction in the second half, where we did better than in the first half.

"We seemed to be doing better in training than today. We believe in Pioli."

Alexandre Pato has urged Milan forward Rafael Leao to stay put, claiming the Portugal international "has a home and everything he needs".

Leao played a key role as Milan ended their 11-year wait for the Scudetto last season, scoring 11 goals for Stefano Pioli's side in Serie A.

He has netted nine times this term for his club, while he also scored twice at the World Cup in Qatar.

The 23-year-old, whose existing contract expires in 2024, has been linked with a move away from San Siro, with the Real Madrid, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool rumoured to be potential destinations.

Reports in Italy have claimed discussions between Leao and Milan over a new deal had broken down, though these were dismissed by the club and the player's agent Ted Dimvula, who described it as "false and misleading information".

Pato, who spent six years at Milan between 2007 and 2013, has encouraged Leao not to be swayed by outside influences.

"He has to do what he feels with his heart, because sometimes you have too many people around you telling you what to do," the former Brazil striker told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"He must decide for what he thinks will make him happy. Leao, however, has a home at Milan, he has everything he needs."

Pato feels Leao "can make the difference" in Sunday's Derby della Madonnina against rivals Inter, where Milan will be aiming to end a six-match winless streak.

Part of the Scudetto-winning side of 2011, Pato believes this season's squad must improve their attitude, though he remains confident Pioli can inspire an upturn in fortunes.

"The premise is that in my dressing room, there were quite a few legends," he observed. "Between training sessions and matches, there was no difference; the attitude was the same.

"I was lucky enough to see [Paolo] Maldini train 110 per cent every day. He arrived earlier, did extra work. [Zlatan Ibrahimovic] the same, Cafu the same. Champions who didn't think about the clock, but only about working as hard as possible.

"So more than talking, all you had to do to understand the right path was to observe. As for the current situation, I can only say that if they're using the same attitude as last year, it's not good.

"Sometimes, the management that follows wins is more complicated than when you don't win. However, I'm sure that Pioli will turn the light back on."

Rafael Leao wants to stay at Milan amid interest from Europe's elite clubs, with his agent slamming "false and misleading information" regarding his contract talks with the Rossoneri. 

The Portugal international was integral as Milan ended an 11-year wait for the Scudetto last season, scoring 11 Serie A goals for Stefano Pioli's title-winning side.

That led to increased speculation over a move away, with the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain credited with an interest in the forward.

With the 23-year-old's contract set to expire in June 2024, Milan remain confident they can agree fresh terms as Leao's agent Ted Dimvula reiterated his client's desire to stay at San Siro.

"There is a lot of false and misleading information about Rafael Leao, mainly in the Italian press," Dimvula told Fabrizio Romano on Wednesday.

"This has only one purpose: to paralyse the cordial and professional dialogue that we have with the Milan management regarding the extension of Rafael's contract.

"We are currently working together to find a satisfactory solution for all parties."

Pioli's side have failed to win their last six games across all competitions and are now fifth in Serie A, 15 points adrift of runaway leaders Napoli.

Leao was dropped to the bench for Sunday's 5-2 defeat against Sassuolo, sparking reports the former Sporting CP forward wanted a move away and was trying to lower his release clause. 

However, Dimvula has no doubts the former Sporting CP forward intends to "progress" with Milan.

"The player's priority has not changed: he wants to stay at Milan and continue to grow and progress at this club and in this city that he loves so much," he added.

"We therefore firmly deny any desire on the part of Rafael and his entourage to lower his release clause in order to facilitate a departure of the player next summer.

"Rafael is completely focused on the important goal at hand with his current club, and he hopes, in this difficult period, to be able to let him work calmly and serenely to return to winning ways."

Milan have denied any issues in ongoing negotiations with Rafael Leao regarding a new contract following reports on Tuesday.

It was reported in Italy that discussions between the Portugal international and the club on a new deal had broken down.

Leao's deal at San Siro is due to expire in 2024 and it was claimed the player's entourage wanted to significantly reduce his release clause.

Milan have denied that any breakdown has occurred, though, and insist discussions will continue.

"With regard to the article published today by the newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport titled: 'Leao Milan total break', Milan would like to clarify that the negotiation with Rafael Leao has not suffered any interruption," a club statement read.

"The journalistic narrative of an alleged frost between the parties is not only totally unfounded but also harmful to the club and its player.

"AC Milan continues, in fact, the dialogue with Leao and his entourage in a serene and professional atmosphere."

Several clubs have been attributed with an interest in Leao, including Premier League trio Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Milan fought back from two down to draw 2-2 at Lecce in Serie A on Saturday, but the comeback did little to distract from their continuing slump.

Stefano Pioli's men threw away a 2-0 lead against Roma last Sunday and were then knocked out of the Coppa Italia by 10-man Torino in midweek.

Things looked to be going from bad to worse for them at Stadio Via del Mare, with Theo Hernandez's early own goal added to by a Federico Baschirotto header in the 23rd minute.

A Rafael Leao snapshot pulled one back, before Davide Calabria equalised 20 minutes from the end, and although the champions could not complete the turnaround, the draw was enough to put Milan second.

The Rossoneri were facing an uphill battle within three minutes as Federico Di Francesco saw his cross turned in by Hernandez.

The lively Di Francesco then shot agonisingly wide either side of Tommaso Pobega shooting at Wladimiro Falcone and Olivier Giroud blazing the rebound over, with Lecce largely in control.

A deserved second did arrive before the half-hour, though, as Baschirotto was left with a free header in the box following Morten Hjulmand's deep cross.

Valentin Gendry should have followed suit a few moments later when inexplicably heading off target after yet more threatening play by Di Francesco.

Milan got a lifeline just before the hour when Leao latched on to a rebound, shifted the ball onto his right foot and beat Falcone at his near post.

Calabria then got on the end of a Giroud header to nod in the leveller 12 minutes later, but a later winner was not forthcoming from either side despite a gripping finale.

Stefano Pioli understands the criticism Milan have received following a pair of demoralising results, but he insists the Scudetto race remains alive ahead of Saturday's trip to Lecce.  

Milan have endured a frustrating week, throwing away a two-goal lead in a dramatic Serie A draw with Roma on Sunday before crashing out of the Coppa Italia against 10-man Torino three days later.

The Serie A champions are seven points adrift of leaders Napoli ahead of Saturday's clash with a Lecce side unbeaten in their last five league games, but Pioli is backing his team to recover.

"It's normal that there is a more critical eye towards us because we won the Scudetto with excellent football," Pioli said. "When that fails, the finger is pointed more, but that's what we want.

"Criticism affects us because we didn't bring home the results we were supposed to bring home. 

"The season is long, the championship won't end tonight either. Let's not forget how we won the Scudetto."

Although Milan have been hamstrung by a lengthy injury list featuring the likes of Mike Maignan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Rossoneri will not look to strengthen in this month's transfer window as Pioli is content with his options.

"I remain convinced that our only problem is not having our complete squad in every department," Pioli said. "There is no need to intervene."

However, the Milan coach is hopeful of some important business being done by the club in the near future, with the Scudetto holders reportedly working on contract renewals for Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leao after Ismael Bennacer penned a new long-term deal on Thursday.

"I'm delighted for Isma. It's deserved for his will and determination," Pioli added. "Isma is very ambitious, with the humility of someone who knows he still has to improve. 

"I'm also very happy for the club, we are confirming a group of players that have become mature, it's important."

Asked specifically about the club's talks with Leao and Giroud, Pioli replied: "I hope more good news arrives. I hope so."

Milan technical director Paolo Maldini is increasingly confident that the club can complete new deals for Rafael Leao and Ismael Bennacer.

Portugal international forward Rafael Leao has been linked with a host of top clubs, including Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City.

The 23-year-old is contracted until 2024 and Maldini revealed prior to Milan's 1-0 Coppa Italia home loss to Torino that they were closing in on agreement on an extension, with the player keen to stay.

"We are talking, there are videocalls too and not just in-person meetings," Maldini told Mediaset. "We will try to reach an agreement. It seems like both parties want to continue together and we will try to close a deal.

"We've been trying to do that for the last year and a half, but a lot happened in that time. The important thing is we want to extend and it seems as if the player wants to as well.

"This team was largely built on the transfer campaign of 2019 and practically all of those who arrived have extended their contracts. I have to say, all those who wanted to renew their deals have done so."

Algerian defensive midfielder Bennacer, 25, is contracted with the Rossoneri until 2024 as well, but Maldini said they are within days of finalising an extension.

"Absolutely, I think we will in the next 24-36 hours," he said.

The reigning Italian champions are currently third in Serie A, seven points behind leaders Napoli after 17 games.

When Fernando Santos called time on his eight-year stint as Portugal head coach after their 2022 World Cup quarter-final elimination, few would have correctly predicted his replacement.

Roberto Martinez also left his national team role after the tournament in Qatar, with Belgium disappointingly falling at the group stage.

The former Everton and Wigan Athletic boss took the Red Devils to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, before reaching the last eight of Euro 2020, being eliminated by the eventual winners in both.

Martinez finds himself in charge of A Selecao now after his appointment was confirmed on Monday, and there is plenty of work to be done.

Qualifiers for the 2024 European Championships get underway in March and with the talent at their disposal, Portugal must be fancied to be among the favourites for the tournament in Germany.

Stats Perform has taken a look at five things in Martinez's in-tray that he will need to consider if he is to find success with his new team.

Solve the Ronaldo conundrum

"Decisions have to be made on the pitch. I won't rush into decisions. I want to meet everyone, and from today I want to talk and meet all the players," Martinez said at his first press conference as Portugal coach.

"Cristiano [Ronaldo] is part of that list. He's had 19 years in the national team and deserves respect, let's talk. From there, it's up to me to make the best list for the European Championships."

Ronaldo has 118 goals in 196 caps for Portugal, undeniably an international record to be proud of, but he will be 38 years old when Martinez takes charge of his first game.

One of the new boss' biggest issues with Belgium was getting the best out of ageing stars, and with Portugal arguably looking far sharper when Ronaldo was benched in Qatar – hat-trick hero v Switzerland Goncalo Ramos in particular – perhaps now is the perfect time to allow the former Real Madrid and Juventus man to fully focus on his new adventure in Saudi Arabia and call time on his international career.

Getting the best out of Joao Felix

This is a problem Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone is all too familiar with, hence why Joao Felix is being linked with a loan move to the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal instead of lighting up LaLiga on a weekly basis.

The 23-year-old has plenty of talent, but a lack of consistency belies the nine-figure fee Atletico paid Benfica for him back in 2019.

If Martinez chooses to move on from Ronaldo though, Joao Felix could find the space and responsibility to thrive at international level as part of a team where everyone would be expected to chip in.

Of players to have featured in at least 14 LaLiga games this season, only Mikel Merino, Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele average more than Joao Felix's 0.42 assists per 90.

Utilise Dias to build solid foundation

Arguably Martinez's main struggle by the end of his time with Belgium was managing a defence filled with players who were several years past their prime.

He will need to make sure that Portugal maintain freshness there as a good defence will always give you a chance in international competitions, such as when Portugal conceded just once in four knockout games on their way to winning Euro 2016.

One key decision could be taken out of his hands, with Pepe expected to announce his retirement from international football, but in Ruben Dias, Martinez has the perfect figure to build his defence around.

The Manchester City centre-back is one of the best in Europe and has shown under Pep Guardiola he can also be relied upon in a backline that pushes high to close space and allow the attack to press from the front, something Martinez has often favoured when he has had the tools to do so.

Build around Bruno

Since his move to Man Utd in January 2020, Bruno Fernandes has proven himself to be one of the premier midfielders in Europe, and at the World Cup, he began to show that he can lead for his national team as well.

Only Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi (both 10) had more goal involvements than Fernandes' five (two goals, three assists) in Qatar, while no-one produced more than his three assists.

In the Premier League this season, only Kevin De Bruyne (41) has created more chances from open play than his 40, with the Manchester City man having played a game more, and with plenty of attacking firepower to aim for with Portugal, Fernandes can in theory fill his assist boots over the coming years under Martinez.

Make the most of Leao

One of those talents Fernandes should be working with is Rafael Leao, one of the most exciting attackers in Europe right now.

While Santos had plenty of other fine players to choose from, it was surprising to see Leao reduced to just substitute appearances in all five games at the World Cup, though he still produced two goals before Portugal were eventually eliminated by Morocco in the quarter-finals.

The Milan forward should really be Martinez's primary weapon on the left of the attack, especially if he can replicate the form that saw him win Serie A's player of the season award as the Rossoneri claimed the Scudetto in 2021-22.

Rafael Leao is central to Milan's fortunes, with Sandro Tonali confident he will remain despite reported significant interest in him.

The Portugal international inspired his side to a first win of 2023, scoring the opener in their 2-1 victory over Salernitana in Serie A.

His goal comes amid increased speculation Leao will be the subject of several big-money bids during the January transfer window.

Real Madrid and Chelsea have both been linked with moves for the forward, but Tonali believes the player's love for Milan will see him stay at San Siro.

"He's always been at the centre of the project here," he told DAZN. "He does not think about the transfer market.

"He's a Milan player, and he wants to stay with us. We saw it after he scored. We just have to keep him close and love him."

The win moved Stefano Pioli's side five points off league leaders Napoli, with the latter set to face Inter on Wednesday.

The gap to the Partenopei this season has seen suggestions Milan's Scudetto defence is already at an end, but Tonali has vowed they will not quit until the title race is done.

"We have to try, we want to repeat," he added. "It's not easy to win it and then defend it, but we have to do it because we are strong and it's one of our goals."

Milan next return home to San Siro to face Roma, in what will be another major test of their credentials, before they are then in Coppa Italia action against Torino.

Rafael Leao should turn down a transfer away from Milan, with former Rossoneri player and head coach Filippo Inzaghi fearing he would just be "one of many" at Manchester City or Real Madrid.

The Portugal international was integral to Milan's Serie A title success last year, and has continued to perform well for them this season.

That has seen Leao linked with a move to one of Milan's heavyweight rivals across Europe, with Chelsea also among those thought to be chasing him.

With only 18 months left on his deal, reports have suggested Leao could move in January, but Inzaghi has implored the 23-year-old to stay, suggesting he can be one of their all-time greats.

"If I were him, I would stay," he told Corriere della Sera. "For me, Milan has always been the best. To wear that shirt, to play at San Siro.

"A few years ago, maybe you could think about aspiring to something more prestigious. But now they [have] won the Scudetto, they [are] in the Champions League.

"Leao is strong, but he can be even stronger. I hope he will be convinced [to remain]. Here, he can be a protagonist, at the centre of the project.

"The risk is that at City or Real, he will then end up being one of many. I would tell him to become a flag-bearer for Milan, something unique."

Milan have laboured in their title defence this term, and head into 2023 with an eight-point gap to leaders Napoli, who look at risk of romping away to the Scudetto.

Inzaghi still thinks Stefano Pioli's side have what it takes to turn things around and make it a battle at home and in Europe, where they have a Champions League last-16 tie with Tottenham to look forward to.

"Milan have a great coach," he added. "They know well what to do. Clearly Napoli has travelled at double speed, but I am convinced the Rossoneri have everything to recover."

Manchester City are reportedly prepared to offer Jack Grealish as well as a hefty transfer fee to Milan for in-demand forward Rafael Leao.

Leao, 23, has scored six goals with five assists in his 14 Serie A fixtures this campaign, following a 2021-22 season where he contributed 11 goals and 10 assists in 34 league appearances.

Meanwhile, 27-year-old Grealish has been trending in the opposite direction, with the most expensive Englishman in football history only playing a complete 90 minutes in two of his 10 Premier League outings this season.

Chelsea have reportedly already seen a £62million (€70m) bid for Leao brushed off by Milan, who have apparently said they will wait for someone to meet his £133m (€150m) release clause, though a new report suggests City could be ready to make their move for the Portugal international.

 

TOP STORY – CITY PREPARED TO OFFER GREALISH IN BID FOR LEAO

While it remains to be seen exactly what price Milan would be happy to part ways with for their young star, City reportedly feel they have an ace up their sleeve in negotiations due to their willingness to send over a replacement player as part of their offer.

According to Calciomercato, City are willing to offer a package of Grealish plus cash to Milan for Leao, and the same outlet reported on December 6 that Milan had interest in Grealish in the event of Leao's departure.

Further reporting from Football Insider has stated City are looking to recoup £60m of their £100m initially spent on Grealish for a potential pursuit of Jude Bellingham.

 

ROUND-UP

– According to L'Equipe, Napoli are the leading candidates to land 22-year-old Angers midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, while the Express adds Leicester City will also mount a charge for the Morocco standout if Youri Tielemans leaves in January.

– Media Foot is reporting Everton are in discussions with Montpellier about a potential £22m (€25m) move for 20-year-old striker Elye Wahi, who has represented France at the under-19 level.

Manchester United are one of the clubs keeping a close eye on 25-year-old Borussia Monchengladbach striker Marcus Thuram after reports the French international will be available for just £10.6m (€12m) in January as he enters the final six months of his contract, per the Daily Mail. 

– Sport Arena is reporting Arsenal have agreed to a five-year contract with 21-year-old Shakhtar Donetsk winger Mykhaylo Mudryk

– According to Fichajes, Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong has had a change of heart and would now like to join Man Utd at the end of the season.

Manchester United are set to be busy in the January transfer window following Cristiano Ronaldo's exit in November.

Erik ten Hag's side are in the market to bolster their forward options, having already been linked to a host of players.

But United look set to settle for short-term loan deals with little money available for a transfer fee, limiting their options.

TOP STORY – MAN UTD INTERESTED IN EX-CHELSEA FLOP MORATA

Manchester United have turned their attention to signing Spain international forward Alvaro Morata on loan, according to ESPN.

United missed out on signing Cody Gakpo, who has joined Liverpool, while they face stiff competition to land Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix along with a reported total package worth €22million for six months.

The report claims the Red Devils are hoping Atletico are willing to listen to loan offers, with the 30-year-old having been loaned to Juventus this season.

ROUND-UP

– Media Foot claims Manchester United and Tottenham have both commenced talks with Rennes on £34m-valued striker Martin Terrier.

Chelsea are rapidly closing in on a deal for 21-year-old Monaco defender Benoit Badiashile, according to CBS' Ben Jacobs, with personal terms agreed.

– The Athletic reports that Chelsea have taken positive steps in talks with N'Golo Kante on re-committing to the club on a new deal. Kante's contract expires in June and he has been linked with several clubs in the January transfer window, including Barcelona .

Manchester City will offer Milan forward Rafael Leao a contract worth €12m per season as they bid to lure him to England in January, claims TuttoMercatoWeb.

Borussia Dortmund have joined the race to sign Juventus' United States international midfielder Weston McKennie, according to Tuttosport, with the German club viewing him as a suitable replacement for Jude Bellingham.

– PSG defender Sergio Ramos is being pursued by Saudi Arabian outfit Al Nassr, claims Marca. Al Nassr are trying to convince Cristiano Ronaldo to join the club, which is their priority move.

Chelsea are reportedly weighing up a bevy of forward options in the January transfer window, including Milan's Rafael Leao and Juventus' Dusan Vlahovic.

The Stamford Bridge side are said to have already come to terms on a deal worth at least €10million for 19-year-old striker David Datro Fofana from Norwegian side Molde, per Fabrizio Romano, but their hunt for reinforcements will not stop there.

With young Chelsea striker Armando Broja set for an extended stint on the sidelines due to injury, they are looking to bring in at least one more new face – or perhaps an old face.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA LOOK TO SERIE A FOR NEW MARQUEE FORWARD

According to Calciomercato and ESPN, Chelsea are engaged in discussions about Serie A forward Leao, Vlahovic, and Roma's Tammy Abraham – who left Chelsea in August 2021.

Recent reports claimed Milan had rejected a €70m offer from Chelsea for Leao, and are trying to hold out for his full €150m release clause, but ESPN's update states it will take "at least €80m" – a figure that is not scaring the Premier League side away.

Vlahovic is also believed to be available due to Juventus' behind-the-scenes turmoil, while Abraham has a €75m buy-back option, but that price is said to be above what Chelsea are willing to pay for him.

Meanwhile, the Evening Standard are reporting Atletico Madrid have offered Chelsea two more options up top, giving them the opportunity to buy Joao Felix or Matheus Cunha.

 

ROUND-UP

– Mundo Deportivo is reporting Liverpool will have to pay £87m for 21-year-old Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernandez, who they are believed to have made a pre-agreement with.

– According to 90min, Manchester City have circled Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham and Arsenal's Bukayo Saka as two key targets going forward.

Manchester United, Newcastle United and Real Madrid are the teams competing for the signature of breakout PSV talent Cody Gakpo, per the Mirror.

– Sport are reporting Barcelona are the favourites to sign Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot, as he would prefer to head to Spain instead of the Premier League.

– According to SoccerNews, the agent of Fiorentina midfielder and Morocco standout Sofyan Amrabat is pushing for his move to Liverpool.

Milan "have to be a little more ambitious" and aim to win more than just the Serie A title, according to director and club legend Paolo Maldini.

The Rossoneri won the Scudetto last season for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign after beating Sassuolo 3-0 on the final day, wrestling the trophy back from city rivals Inter.

Milan's attempts to lift the Serie A trophy for a second straight season have seen them win 10 of their opening 15 matches.

Yet despite sitting second in the table, leaders Napoli are yet to lose a game and already hold an eight-point lead over Stefano Pioli's men.

Milan have fared well in Europe, though, making it into the Champions League knockout stages for the first time since the 2013-14 season.

Maldini, who won seven Serie A titles and five Champions League trophies with the Rossoneri as a player, feels they should be looking for continental success to add to their domestic triumph of last term.

Maldini told MilanTV: "The match played in Sassuolo [to clinch the title on the final day] ended a three-year period that started in 2019 with a very specific project, which did not envisage the victory of the Scudetto, but envisaged the return to be competitive.

"Of course, we're talking about Milan, and we can't be satisfied with having won a Scudetto, we have to be a little more ambitious.

"We can and must be protagonists in the four competitions that remain to us, because little by little, they will be very intense months."

The World Cup has seen several Milan players undertake a starring role for their national teams in Qatar. France duo Theo Hernandez and Olivier Giroud are set to play in Sunday's final against Argentina.

Hernandez scored in the semi-final victory over Morocco and Giroud has become Les Bleus' all-time leading marksman, while winger Rafael Leao also netted twice for Portugal.

"Rafa [Leao] did his part," Maldini added. "Two goals in a World Cup is no small thing. Unfortunately, he didn't play much, but I think it was still a good and high-level experience for him. 

"Olivier and Theo have been stars since the beginning. I must say that we are proud to see them in the starting line-up having reached the final of a World Cup."

Milan return to competitive action on January 4, when they take on Salernitana in Serie A.

Milan's Portuguese forward Rafael Leao will be a key player of interest in the January transfer window.

The 23-year-old helped Milan clinched the Italian Serie A title last term, netting 11 goals for the Rossoneri.

According to reports, Leao is unwilling to pen a contract extension with Milan, who failed to meet his demands.

 

TOP STORY - CHELSEA GET JUMP IN RAFAEL LEAO CHASE

Chelsea have emerged as the frontrunners in the hotly contested pursuit of Milan forward Rafael Leao, claims GiveMeSport's Dean Jones.

Leao enters the final 18 months of his Milan contract in January, with interest also reportedly coming from Real Madrid and Manchester City.

Milan may be willing to let the Portuguese depart in January if they cannot convince him to sign a new deal, rating him at £86million (€100m).

 

ROUND-UP

Chelsea's planned mid-year move for RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku will not be brought forward to January despite a season-ending ACL injury for Armando Broja, reports Fabrizio Romano.

– CBS's Ben Jacobs claims Dusan Vlahovic exiting Juventus in 2023 is a "very real possibility", including a possible January move, with Chelsea among the clubs in contact with the Serbian's representatives.

Real Madrid have joined the race for Netherlands international Cody Gakpo, claims AS. Manchester United are also interested in the PSV forward, who was pursued by Leeds United in the last transfer window.

– ESPN claims Manchester United will enquire with Benfica about the status of Portugal striker Goncalo Ramos, who netted a hat-trick against Switzerland at the World Cup.

Bayer Leverkusen are interested in signing West Ham full-back Vladimir Coufal, claims Sky Sports. The Czech, who is contracted until 2024 with the option of another year, also has interest from two other Premier League clubs.

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