Zlatan Ibrahimovic insisted he does not need to win the Ballon d'Or to prove the Milan star is the best.

Ibrahimovic has won league titles with Ajax, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, though the Swedish forward has never claimed the Ballon d'Or.

The evergreen 40-year-old continues to produce for Milan in his second spell at San Siro, where the Rossoneri are dreaming of their first Scudetto since Ibrahimovic helped deliver silverware in 2010-11.

Ibrahimovic's outspoken agent Mino Raiola said he cannot take the Ballon d'Or seriously due to the fact the Sweden international has never received the prized individual honour.

But during a presentation for his new book "Adrenaline" in Milan on Sunday, Ibrahimovic was quoted as saying: "The Ballon d'Or is a nice thing. But I don't need it to prove that I am the best."

 

 

The event took place after Ibrahimovic scored his 300th league goal across Europe's top five leagues in Saturday's last-gasp 1-1 Serie A draw at Udinese.

Ibrahimovic came to Milan's rescue in spectacular fashion, his stoppage-time equaliser salvaging a point for the Rossoneri in what was his 450th appearance in the top five leagues – the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have reached that mark previously in the 21st century.

"It's the mentality. I train in the same way that I play," Ibrahimovic said of his longevity.

"Every day is a final. It was difficult when I arrived at Milan [for his second spell], but we've created a group. We've created an atmosphere that is over the top.

"Then there was the pandemic, but the staff here is great. I've worked with other teams in my career, but this is really excellent. The group goes towards the same target. Unfortunately, we didn't win yesterday. I should have scored two goals.

"Now, I wake up with pain every day, but I have adrenaline and I go on. This year, the adrenaline is for the Scudetto. Yesterday I scored a goal, but we didn't win and it hurts."

Stefano Pioli was pleased with Milan's character as they salvaged a 1-1 draw at Udinese but warned they must raise their game after slipping up in the Serie A title race.

Four days after they were knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool, the Rossoneri were facing a shock defeat at the Dacia Arena before Zlatan Ibrahimovic volleyed a stoppage-time equaliser.

Ibrahimovic's goal was his 300th combined in Europe's top-five leagues, a landmark only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have also reached this century.

Beto had capitalised on Tiemoue Bakayoko's mistake to give Udinese a deserved lead 17 minutes into their first game under interim head coach Gabriele Cioffi following Luca Gotti's sacking this week.

Isaac Success was sent off for clashing with Mike Maignan following Ibrahimovic's late goal, but there was no time for Milan to force a winner and they could drop to third on Sunday if Inter and Napoli win.

Pioli responded to a poor first-half showing by hauling Bakayoko, Ismael Bennacer and Rade Krunic off at the break and the head coach was left with mixed emotions after watching his side drop points.

He told DAZN: "We start the matches to win and therefore we cannot be satisfied. Let's start with small goals, we can do even better and we will try."

Pioli says Milan must regroup following a difficult week in which they failed to match the sort of standards that lifted them to the summit.

"There was a lack of clarity, we had to force our opponents to move more. It was not a brilliant first half, the goal took confidence away from us," he added.

"I am satisfied with the reaction, it is a sign of character and it is clear that we need to find our rhythm."

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's milestone stoppage-time strike salvaged a 1-1 draw for Serie A leaders Milan at Udinese on Saturday.

Milan's miserable week looked set to take another turn for the worse after Beto gave Udinese a first-half lead at Dacia Arena, four days after the Rossoneri were knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool.

But Ibrahimovic rescued a point with an acrobatic volley in time added on, taking his goal tally to 300 in Europe's top five leagues.

Isaac Success was then shown a red card for violent conduct as Udinese had to settle for a point in their first game under interim head coach Gabriele Cioffi, who stepped in when Luca Gotti was sacked this week.

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has hit another career milestone after netting his 300th goal across Europe's top five leagues.

The Milan veteran scored a spectacular stoppage-time equaliser against Udinese on Saturday in what was his 450th appearance in the top five leagues.

That took Ibrahimovic to 300 goals in those competitions – the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have reached that mark previously in the 21st century.

Ibrahimovic has featured in four of the top five leagues, with the Bundesliga the only competition missing off his list.

Having joined Juventus in 2004 from Ajax, the Sweden striker has gone on to play for Inter, Barcelona, Milan (over two spells), Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United.

Ibrahimovic has now scored seven Serie A goals this term. He netted 15 last season and 10 in 2019-20 after he returned to Milan following a stint in MLS with the LA Galaxy.

The 40-year-old scored 17 goals in his sole full season in the Premier League with United, averaging a strike every 143 minutes.

His best minutes-per-goal ratio across a full league campaign so far came in his final season at PSG in 2015-16 (67), in which he also set up a career-high 13 league goals for team-mates.

Ibrahimovic scored 38 times in Ligue 1 that season, with an impressive shot conversion rate of 24.52 per cent from 155 attempts.

He has scored 30 or more league goals on two occasions, in 2015-16 and in 2012-13, also with PSG.

Ibrahimovic's maiden season in one of the big five leagues produced 16 goals for Juve. He failed to settle at Barca under Pep Guardiola but still contributed 16 LaLiga goals in 2009-10.

Just over half of his goals have have been scored in Italy (154), while 113 came in Ligue 1.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic wants to stay at Milan for "life" as the evergreen superstar eyes a Rossoneri contract extension.

Ibrahimovic celebrated his 40th birthday in October but the veteran forward has shown no signs of slowing down amid Milan's Serie A title bid.

Out of contract at the end of the season, Ibrahimovic has scored six goals in nine league appearances to help Scudetto-chasing Milan to the top of the table through 16 rounds.

Ibrahimovic has been a revelation since re-joining Milan for a second spell in January 2020 and as the Swede continues to defy 'Father Time', he has no plans to leave San Siro.

"I want to play as long as possible, and as long as I have that adrenaline, I will continue," Ibrahimovic – who was part of the last Milan team to win Serie A in 2010-11 – told Rai Tre's Che Tempo Che Fa.

"Let's put pressure on Milan here to give me an extension and I hope to stay at Milan for life.

"I still have objectives that I can achieve and I want to win another Scudetto."

 

Ibrahimovic added: "I don't know what will happen after football, so I am a little scared to stop. We'll see, but I want to continue playing so that I don't have any regrets."

Milan defeated Salernitana 2-0 on Saturday, with Ibrahimovic watching from the bench.

In Milan's previous victory – a 3-0 win over Genoa on Wednesday – Ibrahimovic scored his 153rd Serie A goal, drawing level with Stefano Nyers and Hernan Crespo in 26th place among the top scorers in the Italian competition.

His 73 league goals for Milan also took Swedish forward Ibrahimovic to 10th in Milan's standings, alongside Filippo Inzaghi.

Ibrahimovic has played alongside Milan great and current Rossoneri technical director Paolo Maldini, and his son Daniel – spanning two generations.

"It's wonderful, we'll see if the adrenaline continues and I can play with Daniel's son as well!" Ibrahimovic joked.

Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic wants to re-sign with the Scudetto-chasing Rossoneri after his latest goalscoring exploits for the Serie A high-flyers.

Ibrahimovic opened the scoring with a stunning first-half free-kick in Wednesday's 3-0 victory at Genoa, a result that moved Milan within a point of leaders Napoli, who squandered a 2-0 lead in a 2-2 draw against Sassuolo.

The victory was a welcome return to form for Milan, having gone from unbeaten domestically to licking their wounds following back-to-back league defeats.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli signed a contract extension last week and Ibrahimovic wants to be the next to put pen to paper as the evergreen 40-year-old eyes silverware with the club.

"I have fun, before the match, we had already decided how long I would have played," Ibrahimovic said to Sky Sport Italia after the match. "These guys make me have fun and feel young.

"We had made errors that cost us the previous two games. It was all our fault, not our opponents' merit, but we won today and we remain up there.

"Now I have to renew. I am happy for [Pioli] because he deserves [his contract extension], if he renews, I renew. Pioli has done a great job.

"I am happy for the fans. For so many years, they have not enjoyed as they are enjoying now. I want to make them happy, but if we don't win a trophy we haven't done anything."

Ibrahimovic's goal was his 153rd goal in Serie A, drawing level with Stefano Nyers and Hernan Crespo in 26th place among the top scorers in the Italian competition.

His 73 league goals for Milan also took Swedish forward Ibrahimovic to 10th in Milan's standings, alongside Filippo Inzaghi.

Once Pioli had penned his own terms, the 56-year-old revealed that Ibrahimovic wasted no time in contacting him to ask for a new contract. 

The Milan boss praised his team's performance against Genoa, particularly the connection between Ibrahimovic and his team-mates.

"Zlatan is the only player who sent me a message as soon as I signed my contract," Pioli said to Sky Sport Italia. "It said congratulations, Mister, now sort mine out!

"That's Zlatan for you! This is a season that can give us satisfaction, I don't know how far we can go.

"We played with intensity and determination for the whole game this evening and unfortunately we are not a team that can do the bare minimum. We've got to give it our all, or we are not superior to the opposition.

"The arrival of Zlatan improved everything, certainly, but his team-mates also did well to accept his way of motivating them.

"At the same time, Zlatan has to thank his team-ates, because he has come back to being the great player he was a few years ago. It's give and take for them both."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Junior Messias scored as Milan bounced back from successive Serie A defeats in style, beating Genoa 3-0 away from home on Wednesday.

Veteran centre-forward Ibrahimovic punished the poor positioning of a Genoa wall, firing in an early free-kick to settle any Milan nerves.

Messias then scored twice, heading past Salvatore Sirigu in first-half stoppage time before fizzing a low strike into the bottom corner just after the hour mark.

Genoa were hardly able to threaten the visitors, with Milan's dominance duly reflected in the scoreline as the Rossoneri moved to within a point of leaders Napoli.

Ibrahimovic opened the scoring in just the 10th minute, bending his free-kick around the centrally positioned wall and into the bottom-right corner, leaving Sirigu with no chance in the Genoa goal.

The 40-year-old started the game in lively fashion, taking six of Milan's first seven shots in the opening 20 minutes, but it was Brahim Diaz who came closest to doubling the visitors' advantage, lashing narrowly over after a superb solo run shortly before the break.

Milan did go 2-0 up soon after, with Messias powering a looping header across goal and over the diving Sirigu after Rade Krunic's shot in the box was blocked and popped up into the air.

Hernani came close to pulling one back for Genoa early in the second half, but his towering header was kept out spectacularly by Mike Maignan before Fikayo Tomori produced a spectacular bicycle-kick clearance off the line.

It was Milan that scored next, Messias steering a low effort into the bottom-left corner to round off a flowing team move and give his side a three-goal cushion, which they held comfortably through to the final whistle.

What does it mean? Milan stabilise to maintain title tilt

Milan's Scudetto hopes had been dented by back-to-back defeats against Fiorentina and Sassuolo as they failed to take the opportunity to leapfrog Napoli, who also suffered their first league defeat of the campaign in that time.

However, the commanding victory not only restores some confidence for the Rossoneri but moves them closer to the leaders, who drew 2-2 at Sassuolo.

Ibrahimovic continues to age gracefully

Ibrahimovic's opening strike means the veteran striker has now equaled Silvio Piola's record for the most goals scored in Serie A after turning 38 years old (31).

Messias brings Brazilian flair back to Milan

Messias' brace made him the first Brazilian player to score twice for Milan in a Serie A away game since Ronaldinho did so against Juventus in 2010.

What's next?

Genoa travel to Turin to face Juventus on Sunday, while Milan host Salernitana on Saturday.

Milan kept their Champions League campaign alive as a late goal from substitute Junior Messias earned them a dramatic 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid.

Stefano Pioli's side were staring elimination in the face before Messias rose to meet Franck Kessie's cross in the 87th minute and converted to send the travelling supporters into raptures at the Wanda Metropolitano.

The goal clinched Milan's first victory in this season's competition and moved them ahead of Atletico in Group B with one game left to play.

Atletico boss Diego Simeone had seen his side frustrate Milan for over 80 minutes before their hopes of qualifying were thrown up in the air, and any one of Porto, Milan or Atletico can still reach the knockout stage along with group winners Liverpool.

Manchester United have to get out of the cycle of talking "too much about the past" and build a present, according to the club's former striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Swedish striker spent just under two years at Old Trafford between spells with Paris Saint-Germain and LA Galaxy.

During his time there, United won the Europa League and EFL Cup under Jose Mourinho in the 2016-17 season, with Ibrahimovic finishing as their top scorer for the season with 28 goals across all competitions.

United finished second in the Premier League in 2017-18, doing so for the first time since Alex Ferguson's departure, though Ibrahimovic left for MLS in mid-season shortly after recovering from a serious knee injury.

Mourinho was then dismissed in late 2018 and United have not won a trophy since, with the Portuguese's successor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, shown the door on Sunday following a poor run of results.

For many, Solskjaer never should have ascended to the top job in the first place, with a common accusation being the Norwegian was elevated to a position he did not earn just because he was a legendary figure at the club as a player.

He was allowed to surround himself with coaching staff who also had prior links to United and Ferguson, and Ibrahimovic believes this obsession with yesteryear is part of the problem at the club.

"I had a great experience in England," Ibrahimovic told the Guardian. "Manchester United are an amazing club and we won a couple of trophies.

"They talk too much about the past. When I went there, I said: 'I'm here to focus on the present and to make my own story.'

"But when you have too much it becomes like a loop. You have to think about the present or you should go to a hospital and clean your head."

When Ibrahimovic left United, many suspected his move to MLS was going to be his last before retirement, yet he returned to Serie A for a third spell at Milan in January 2020.

Again, there were doubts he could still handle the physical demands of one of Europe's elite leagues at his age, but even with numerous injuries he has managed to score 30 goals in 44 Serie A appearances.

Seven players have scored more than Ibrahimovic since his debut, though only Luis Muriel and Cristiano Ronaldo (among players with at least 10 goals) can better his record of one goal every 107.8 minutes.

The 40-year-old Ibrahimovic may not have had the same success had he returned to the Premier League due to what he considers greater physical pressure, but in Italy he believes he is immersed in a league that is of higher quality in a technical sense.

"The quality [of the Premier League] is overrated in a technical way," he added. "But the Premier League has different qualities – the pace, the rhythm.

"You can be the best player in the world but if you cannot handle that pace and rhythm [you cannot succeed in the Premier League].

"In Spain, France, Italy, the technique is better. That's why there are so many foreigners in the Premier League. They bring the technical [skills]."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic acknowledged his shoulder charge on Cesar Azpilicueta was stupid but insisted he would "100 per cent" do it again. 

In the closing stages of Sweden's 1-0 defeat to Spain this month, which meant they would have to go through the play-offs to reach the 2022 World Cup, Ibrahimovic steamed into Azpilicueta and sent him flying to the ground. 

The veteran striker was shown a yellow card that has ruled him out of Sweden's play-off semi-final in March. 

But Ibrahimovic felt it was important for him to stand up for a team-mate and teach the Chelsea defender a lesson. It is not a decision he would change if he had his time again. 

"The other day in the national team, I gave a tackle to [Azpilicueta]. I did it on purpose. I'm not ashamed to say it because he did something stupid to my player. Acting big to my player," Ibrahimovic told The Guardian. 

"It was a stupid thing but I would still do it to make him understand: 'You don’t f****** do that. You don't have balls to do it against me. But I will show you what happens if you do it to me.' That’s why I did it. 

"It's not about missing the play-offs. It's about making the guy understand you don't take the p*** out of somebody laying [on the ground]. You don't attack a dog that doesn't talk. Attack the one able to do something. It's too easy to pick on my team-mates who are 20 years old and very nice guys. I hope he understands now. 

"I'm not afraid to say it to you. I did a stupid thing. [But] I will do it again. 100 per cent. 

"That is what I say about being 'perfect'. Being myself is perfect for me. I don't need filters to ask them what kind of questions you will give me." 

Asked if Azpilicueta had said anything to him after the game, Ibrahimovic replied: "What can he say? He will not say it to me but he will say it to my player – who will do nothing because he's too nice. 

"It was not a good thing by me, but I would still do it. That's me. I'm not ashamed to say it." 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice but was unable to rescue Milan as their unbeaten start in Serie A ended with a thrilling 4-3 loss at Fiorentina on Saturday.

The Rossoneri had made their best start to a top-flight season in the three-points-per win era after 12 matches and had a chance to move clear at the top of the table, but ​their 17-game unbeaten run in the league stretching back into last season was halted at Stadio Artemio Franchi.

Joseph Alfred Duncan profited from a calamitous mix-up between Ciprian Tatarusanu and Matteo Gabbia to fire the hosts ahead, before former Milan player Riccardo Saponara curled in a sensational second shortly before half-time.

Dusan Vlahovic extended Fiorentina's advantage, and while Ibrahimovic struck twice in five minutes to set up a tense period, the Serbia international notched his 14th league goal of the season to render Lorenzo Venuti's late own goal nothing more than a consolation.

Milan found themselves behind with 15 minutes played in rather comical circumstances as Tatarusanu spilled a corner and Gabbia attempted to shield the ball for his goalkeeper, but Alfred Duncan got to it first and prodded in from close range. 

Pietro Terracciano frustrated Milan with a couple of impressive stops and Ibrahimovic diverted wide from inside the six-yard box – a miss that would prove costly as Saponara bent a delightful 25-yard shot away from Tatarusanu into the top-right corner.

Vlahovic added a third against the run of play after an hour with a composed finish from a tight angle once played in by Alfred Duncan, but Milan were soon back in the game through Ibrahimovic's double.

The striker profited from a loose Giacomo Bonaventura pass to thump past Terracciano and then turned home Theo Hernandez's cut-back to leave Fiorentina sweating.

Venuti put into his own net deep into added time after Ibrahimovic's header hit the woodwork and ricocheted in off his face, but only after Vlahovic had settled any nerves with his second of the match in the 85th minute.

 

 

Paul Pogba's future continues to make headlines.

With his contract expiring, it remains to be seen whether he will remain at Manchester United.

United are believed to be ready to move on as Real Madrid lurk.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID READY TO POUNCE FOR POGBA

Manchester United have given up on keeping Pogba and Real Madrid have a "great opportunity" to sign the Frenchman, according to the front page of Thursday's Marca.

Pogba is out of contract at the end of the season and the United star is no closer to a renewal at Old Trafford.

Madrid are continuing to circle Pogba, who has also been linked with former club Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.

 

ROUND-UP 

- Sport claims Barca are eyeing moves for Chelsea's Hakim Ziyech and Bayern Munich star Kingsley Coman. Out-of-favour Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling and RB Leipzig's Dani Olmo have also been linked.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will extend his contract at Milan until 2023, reports Gazzetta dello Sport.

Chelsea are interested in signing Leicester City defender Wesley Fofana, says Foot Mercato. The 20-year-old is yet to play this season due to a serious leg injury.

- El Nacional reports Madrid and Chelsea will go head-to-head to land Monaco star Aurelien Tchouameni. The France international is also reportedly wanted by Juve, City, United, Liverpool, Bayern and Newcastle United.

Newcastle are eyeing Inter duo Stefan de Vrij and Marcelo Brozovic and Lazio goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha, per The Times.

Spain qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after a tense 1-0 victory over Sweden that was secured by Alvaro Morata's late winner.

Sweden needed to win in Seville on Sunday to top Group B but will go into the play-offs instead after Luis Enrique's home side saw out a nervy final match of their qualifying campaign to clinch the automatic spot.

Emil Forsberg had two clear-cut goalscoring opportunities for Sweden at the Estadio La Cartuja but was unable to test Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon.

Morata gave Spain victory with a close-range strike on the rebound with four minutes of the game left after Dani Olmo had seen his effort hit the crossbar.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not thinking about retiring from professional football despite needing a physio to watch his every step.

Since returning to Milan in January 2020, Ibrahimovic has scored 30 goals and supplied nine assists in 54 games in all competitions. 

However, the striker has struggled with injuries and featured in only half of the Rossoneri's Serie A games in 2020-21, while he was forced to pull out of Euro 2020 duty with Sweden. 

Still, he became the fourth-oldest scorer in Serie A history this season when he struck against Bologna last month and took his domestic league tally to 400 versus Roma a week later.

Ibrahimovic acknowledged he has had to learn to listen to his body more and seek treatment as quickly as he can, though it has not made him think about hanging up his boots. 

"Last season I had more injuries than I usually have and have had before. But it's because I didn't think about taking it easy when I felt something, I just powered on. I have that mentality. I give 200 per cent," said Ibrahimovic. 

"After I turned 30, I noticed the pain does not go away, it just moves within the body. 

"What I have changed is that now I have a physio that follows me everywhere in Italy 24 hours a day. At the very least, he is right there poking. 

"That's the only change I made. As soon as I feel something, I want to take care of it immediately." 

He added: "We always want to play, but I have to find the right balance considering the injuries I've had. 

"You learn something new every day. I get to know by body better with every day that passes. But as my body ages, my head becomes younger and I look more handsome. 

"I haven't set a date to quit. I want to continue as long as possible and not think about when it will end. I don't want to be sad, like someone who quits thinking he could've played again." 

Ibrahimovic retired from international duty after Euro 2016 but has since returned to the fold, making his comeback for Sweden in March. 

An Achilles injury forced him to withdraw from the squad in the previous international break, but Sweden boss Janne Andersson has been impressed by his recovery. 

If Sweden beat Georgia on Thursday, they will go into their final World Cup qualifier against Spain three days later knowing a point will be enough for them to top Group B and book their place in Qatar – assuming La Roja beat Greece beforehand.

Andersson refused to confirm whether Ibrahimovic was ready to play in both games, though. 

"If we're talking about Zlatan and his physique, he has looked surprisingly good. Last night [the Milan derby] I think he looked fit – the matches before that too," said Andersson. 

"A few weeks ago he looked a bit rusty but he has looked great since, so we will see how much I will play him." 

"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.

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