Rafael Leao expressed his excitement over speculation of interest from Real Madrid, but the Milan forward assured his "feet will remain firmly on the ground".

The Portugal international has starred for Milan since joining from Lille in 2019 and played an integral role as Stefano Pioli's side secured their first Scudetto in 11 years.

Leao scored 11 times and assisted eight in 34 Serie A appearances over the 2021-22 season, setting up two goals in the final-day 3-0 win over Sassuolo that sealed the title.

No Milan player outscored him – Olivier Giroud also scored 11 league goals – or recorded more assisted for the Rossoneri this term.

Leao regularly tormented Serie A defences with his powerful runs down the left flank, with only Adama Traore (107), Kylian Mbappe (112) and Allan Saint-Maximin (150) completing more dribbles than him (98) across Europe's top five leagues.

The form of Pioli's key man has led to reports Madrid are interested after missing out on Paris Saint-Germain's Mbappe, but Leao insists he is focusing on life with the Rossoneri.

"I'm at Milan, I have another two years on my contract," he told A Bola. "Untouchable? I'm happy with these words. I feel at home, but right now my focus is on the national team.

"[The rumours about Real Madrid] make me happy, but my feet are firmly on the ground. It is a pride to work with highly experienced players. 

"As for my development, I left Sporting [CP] when I was young and went to Lille. People may not know it, but Ligue 1 is a strong league, I have evolved."

Leao will now target World Cup success with Portugal in Qatar as he looks to partner fellow Sporting academy graduate Cristiano Ronaldo.

"Two years have not gone as I would have liked, but now I am more mature and confident, the season has gone as I wanted," he added.

"I hope to do great things in the future. I want to be a point of reference in my club and in the national team… the highest point is, for example, winning a World Cup."

Meanwhile, Milan technical director Paolo Maldini insists Leao will never be put up for sale by the Rossoneri.

"Of course he is not for sale," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "He is still a rough diamond who from one year to the next has already improved so much.

"We signed him from Lille for €24million and immediately put a €150m release clause on him, because we believed so much in this player.

"He was always potentially a great champion, but he needs to continue this growth process that he is only part-way through.

"He is extremely intelligent but needed to be helped along the way and I spoke to him a lot.

"Clearly, if in future Milan are not at the level of Leao or if Leao is not at the level of Milan, things could change. But at this moment, the growth is exponential for both the club and the player."

Real Madrid have turned their attention to Milan forward Rafael Leao after being snubbed by Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe.

The 22-year-old Portuguese winger scored 14 goals and contributed 12 assists in 42 games in all club competitions this season, after 13 goals combined in his first two campaigns in Milan.

His rapid ascension has seen him fitted with an eye-opening price tag, with ESPN reporting his release clause is at €150million, and that Madrid will offer somewhere in the range of €120m.

 

TOP STORY – LOS BLANCOS CLOSE IN ON MILAN'S PORTUGUESE STAR

Leao provided an assist in Milan's Champions League loss to Liverpool, scored a goal in their defeat to Atletico Madrid, and tallied three goals and six assists in the last six games of the Serie A season to seal the Scudetto.

With his lofty price tag, it is fair to assume Leao is the Spanish giants' top target in the upcoming transfer window, although he is not the only big-money signing reportedly in the works for Madrid.

ESPN is also reporting Madrid's €80m move for Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni has been held up by a tax issue, and if it is to fall through, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are all circling.

 

ROUND-UP

– The Daily Mail is reporting Everton striker Richarlison has strong interest from Tottenham, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.

– With Burnley relegated from the Premier League, the Telegraph is reporting Everton and West Ham will compete for the services of Clarets striker Maxwel Cornet.

– According to the Evening Standard, Harry Kane no longer wishes to leave Tottenham and is now ready to open talks for a new contract.

Chelsea have been told they will need to pay £45m to pry Marc Cucurella away from Brighton and Hove Albion, according to the Sun.

– Todofichajes is reporting Liverpool would like RB Leipzig star Christopher Nkunku to be their long-term replacement for Mohamed Salah, should the Egyptian leave the club, with his contract expiring in 2023.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic revealed he has "never suffered so much" as he did in the past six months after the Milan striker underwent knee surgery.

The new Serie A champions on Wednesday revealed Ibrahimovic will be out for up to eight months following an operation on his left knee.

Ibrahimovic came off the bench in a 3-0 win over Sassuolo on Sunday that sealed the Rossoneri's first Scudetto for 11 years.

The 40-year-old Sweden striker only started 12 games for Stefano Pioli's side this season and with his contract expiring at the end of next month, his future is up in the air.

Ibrahimovic on Thursday opened up on the pain he has experienced this year.

"For the past six months I played without an ACL in my left knee," he posted on Instagram.

"Swollen knee for six months. I was only able to train with the team 10 times in the last six months.

"Took more than 20 injections in six months. Emptied the knee once a week for six months. Painkillers every day for six months.

"Barely slept for six months because of the pain. Never suffered so much on and off the pitch. I made something impossible to something possible.

"In my mind I had only one objective, to make my team-mates and coach champions of Italy because I made them a promise. Today I have a new ACL and another trophy."

Milan have confirmed Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss the rest of 2022 after having surgery on a knee problem, stoking speculation the forward might retire.

Ibrahimovic celebrated Milan's Serie A title success in typical style on Sunday, smoking a cigar as he made his way out onto the pitch for the trophy presentation.

Yet the 40-year-old – who came off the bench in the 3-0 win over Sassuolo that sealed the title – might have made his final appearance for Milan, and possibly of his career, after he underwent surgery on his left knee.

Milan revealed on Wednesday that Ibrahimovic will face between seven and eight months out of action, but that the surgery was a success.

"AC Milan announces that Zlatan Ibrahimovic underwent surgery on his left knee today by Dr. Bertrand Sonnery-Cottet, in the presence of club medical director Stefano Mazzoni, at the Hopital Jean Mermoz in Lyon," read a Milan statement.

"The arthroscopy had been planned for some time to definitively resolve the instability of the joint through reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament, with lateral reinforcement and meniscal repair. The operation was perfectly successful and the prognosis is estimated at seven-to-eight months."

Ibrahimovic scored eight goals from 23 Serie A appearances this season, though his last start in the competition came in January. His contract ends in June.

Reports in Italy earlier this week claimed Milan would only be offering the Sweden international a new deal should surgery not be required, also suggesting Ibrahimovic would consider retirement if an operation was needed.

Speculation over Declan Rice's future has long centred on an apparently inevitable departure from West Ham United.

The Hammers run to the Europa League semi-final has amplified talk around the England international midfielder, with Chelsea and Manchester United linked.

According to reports, though, the 23-year-old appears content at London Stadium with a World Cup on the horizon.

 

TOP STORY – DECLAN RICE TO STICK WITH WEST HAM    

Declan Rice will not leave West Ham despite interest from Manchester United and Chelsea, according to The Mirror.

The 23-year-old has been reticent to sign a new deal at the club, but he is reportedly in no hurry to leave yet either, seemingly wanted to stay settled ahead of November's World Cup in Qatar.

United have looked to Rice as one of their primary transfer targets as Erik ten Hag looks to overhaul the squad, but Rice appears set for one more season at West Ham following their run to the Europa League semi-final this term.

Hammers management had previously advised that Rice is not for sale, and strong performances at the World Cup with England would likely only increase his already lofty market value.

ROUND-UP

Real Madrid are showing interest in Milan's Rafael Leao after Kylian Mbappe opted to stay at Paris Saint-Germain, according to Marca.

– Los Blancos are also looking to scupper Liverpool's move for Aurelien Tchouameni, despite the player having already agreed terms with the Reds so say The Mirror.

Barcelona are discussing personal terms with Marcos Alonso, who is set to leave Chelsea, Fabrizio Romano reports.

– Arsenal defender William Saliba wants to stay at Marseille, where he has been on loan, per Goal.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic declared his Milan mission accomplished as the Rossoneri were crowned Serie A champions for the first time in 11 years – but the veteran has not ruled out playing for another season.

The 40-year-old Swedish striker embarked on the second spell of his career with Milan in December 2019, and said that was at the behest of his long-time agent Mino Raiola, who died in late April.

Ibrahimovic dedicated his title success with Milan to Raiola, who he said had backed him to lift Milan from the doldrums.

The former Juventus and Inter player's impact at San Siro has been remarkable, with a glut of goals early on serving to lift spirits at the club and set the tone for the success that has followed.

Last season, Ibrahimovic scored 16 goals in 26 games as Milan finished second in Serie A, while this term he has also featured 26 times, albeit starting only 12 games and netting eight times.

The returns have been diminishing and injuries have been a problem, with knee and Achilles trouble disrupting his season this time around, but Ibrahimovic's effervescence continues to be infectious as he proves a positive dressing-room presence.

"When I got back here, I remember a journalist at a press conference saying that usually those who go back to where they have been can do only worse," Ibrahimovic told DAZN after the title-clinching 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

"I replied that I would fight to get the club back up and to win the Scudetto. Nobody believed it, but we are here, we have worked hard and made many sacrifices, proving that thanks to work nothing is impossible."

Ibrahimovic was Milan's main man when they won the 2010-11 Serie A title, having previously been a table-topper in Italy with Juve and Inter. He has since starred for Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and LA Galaxy, where it was widely assumed he was winding down his career, albeit with a glut of goals. The return to Milan has proved otherwise in that regard.

He recognised his playing efforts this year had been less influential than in the past two campaigns, and his contract is due to expire next month.

"But I think I have been useful to this group off the pitch," he added.

Milan collected gained 86 points in Serie A this season, and only in 2005-06 (88 points) have they managed more in the era of three points for a win.

Speaking about Raiola, Ibrahimovic said: "The dedication is to Mino Raiola. This is the first trophy I have won without him.

"When I returned to Europe, I was close to Napoli, and then I asked him where I could go to make a difference and he replied that only I could save Milan."

Ibrahimovic puffed on a cigar and celebrated with champagne after Milan secured the Scudetto. If that suggested a sense of finality, Ibrahimovic seemingly did not intend it that way.

He will have his body checked out now the season is over, and said: "If I'm fine, this wasn't my last match. I'll consider whether to have surgery."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic smoked a cigar and toasted Milan's Serie A title triumph with champagne as he collected yet another medal on Sunday.

The Rossoneri secured their first Scudetto for 11 years with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo on the final day of the season, finishing two points clear of city rivals Inter.

All three goals came in the first half at the Mapei Stadium on Sunday, Olivier Giroud scoring twice before Franck Kessie got in the act for rampant Milan.

The outstanding Rafael Leao laid on all three goals as a huge contingent of Milan fans partied in Reggio Emilia, where they moved level with Inter's tally of being crowned champions of Italy 19 times.

It was Ibrahimovic who took centre stage during the trophy presentation ceremony, coming out of the tunnel smoking a cigar and swigging champagne.

The 40-year-old had a goal disallowed for offside against Leao after he came on to replace Giroud in the second half of what could be his final appearance for the club.

Ibrahimovic's contract expires at the end of the month and he could be on the move once again. 

While he has not lit up San Siro this season due to injury problems, if the legendary Swede's Milan career is over, it seems only right that he departs on a such a high note resembling a rock star.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

Milan have been crowned as Serie A champions for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign after beating Sassuolo.

Stefano Pioli's men went into the final day of the season knowing they simply needed to avoid defeat to clinch their first Scudetto in over a decade.

The Rossoneri had established a two-point lead over rivals Inter – against whom they also held a head-to-head advantage – at the Serie A summit. 

And they made sure of their success with a 3-0 defeat of Sassuolo, thanks to goals from Olivier Giroud and Franck Kessie.

Milan travelled to Sassuolo having made light of a challenging run-in, winning five consecutive games to tee up their historic triumph, as they matched the Nerazzurri's tally of 19 Italian top-flight titles. Only Juventus (36) have more than the two Milanese giants. 

While Inter avoided handing the title to the Rossoneri following a hard-fought 3-1 win over Cagliari last weekend, their result against Sampdoria on the final day was ultimately immaterial as Milan made their advantage count at the end of an absorbing title race.

The Rossoneri's last title triumph came under the tutelage of Massimiliano Allegri some 11 seasons ago, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexandre Pato, and Robinho each scoring 14 Serie A goals apiece as Milan finished six points clear of Inter.

Pioli's men have been able to rely on a fantastic defensive record to get them over the line, conceding just eight league goals since the turn of the year.

Indeed, 11 of Milan's 17 Serie A clean sheets this season have come in 2022, and last week's crucial 2-0 win over Atalanta marked the first time they had kept five consecutive home clean sheets in Serie A since a run of six under Carlo Ancelotti in 2002.

The Rossoneri's title win also marks the first major trophy of Pioli's coaching career, and the club's first trophy win since the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana.

Milan are top dogs in Italy for the first time in 11 years after holding off fierce rivals Inter to finish top of Serie A.

The Rossoneri finished the season with six wins in a row, and no defeat in 16, culminating in a 3-0 victory over Sassuolo on Sunday.

After falling just short in Stefano Pioli's first campaign at the helm when finishing second, Milan can finally celebrate a first Scudetto since 2010-11.

While it may only have been a little over a decade since Milan last reigned, a lot has changed both in a sporting and non-sporting sense.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how the world looked around the time of the club's most recent triumph in 2011.

 

First of many for Djokovic, McIlroy makes his mark

Novak Djokovic is favourite to win Wimbledon for a seventh time next month, though he was yet to claim his first crown at SW19 when Milan last lifted the Scudetto.

The Serbian went on to add the US Open to the Australian Open he also won that year, overtaking Rafael Nadal to become world number one in the process.

Tiger Woods was the highest-earning sportsman that year – some things never change – yet it was Rory McIlroy's name on everyone's lips after taking the world of golf by storm.

McIlroy carded a 69 in the final round to break the US Open scoring record with a 268 as he became the youngest winner of the tournament since Bobby Jones in 1923.

A number of major sporting events took place that year, with New Zealand beating France in the Rugby World Cup final and Japan triumphing in the women's football equivalent.

India saw off Sri Lanka to celebrate Cricket World Cup success on home soil, meanwhile, and Netherlands beat Cuba in the Baseball World Cup.

Deposed leaders fall

In the world of politics, hundreds were killed and thousands more injured during violent clashes in Egypt to protest against government corruption and poverty.

Fidel Castro resigned as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba after serving in the party for 45 years. He died in 2016 at the age of 90.

A 10-year search for Osama bin Laden came to an end when the al-Qaeda founder was killed by special forces in Pakistan.

Deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed during the civil war, leading to widespread ramifications.

A year of world-shifting events culminated in the United States withdrawing its last troops from Iraq, eight years after the war had begun.


Winter is (almost) coming

Television has come a long way over the past decade, not least in terms of the countless streaming services and wide array of boxsets to appease anyone and everyone.

Back when Massimo Ambrosini lifted the Scudetto in 2011, arguably the most popular series of all time, Game of Thrones, was still midway through airing its first season.

Suits, Homeland and The Killing also premiered that year, while over in Italy, 48-year-old painter Fabrizio Vendramin (us neither) won the second season of Italia's Got Talent.

Beyond painters, erm, painting to an audience of millions, the big TV talking point that year was Charlie Sheen being fired from Two and a Half Men for "self-destructive conduct".

Relight My Fire

The importance of certain technology, not least smartphones, has only grown in the past 11 years.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, played a huge part in that up until his untimely death at the age of 56 in October 2011 after battling pancreatic cancer.

One of the standout product launches of the year was Amazon's Kindle Fire, which undoubtedly helped chairman Jeff Bezos on his way to becoming the world's richest man.

Whether Milan's current crop can stand the test of time, unlike the Kindle, remains to be seen.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is eager to play an important role when Milan look to clinch the Serie A title at Sassuolo on Sunday. 

Victory at the Mapei Stadium will see the Rossoneri win the Scudetto for the first time since 2010-11, which was during Ibrahimovic's first stint with the club. 

The Swede returned in January 2020 and in 72 appearances in all competitions has scored 35 goals – nine more than any of his team-mates in the same time frame – at a rate of one every 129 minutes. 

Ibrahimovic, whose contract is set to expire at the end of the season, has also contributed 11 assists for a total of 46 goal involvements. Rafael Leao is second on 42 for Milan but has played 28 games more. 

Although only 11 of the 40-year-old's Serie A appearances this season have come as part of the starting line-up, head coach Stefano Pioli believes he has been crucial to Milan's title challenge behind the scenes. 

Asked if Ibrahimovic was keen to play an important role against Sassuolo, Pioli replied: "A lot, like all of us. 

"We are experiencing an important moment. The season will finish tomorrow. There's a difference between winning and losing, and everyone must think they can be decisive. 

"Zlatan has brought a strong mentality and quality. He has more football intelligence than anyone else. He has been a reference point and has been instrumental in the growth of the team, which have been good at following his lead. They have become stronger players with him." 

Sassuolo have won each of the past two Serie A meetings between the teams but Milan are on a run of five straight away league wins against the Neroverdi. 

"Today, in my opinion, we deserve to be first. We've been the best team but also need to be [against Sassuolo]," said Pioli. 

"It's a difficult game. Nobody has given us anything this season and tomorrow will be the same. I just think about preparing as best as possible, knowing that we have reached this point with solid foundations. 

"Sassuolo can surprise you. It will be a complicated match tactically and physically, but we know how to fight and suffer." 

Roberto Mancini suggested the failings of Italy are due to the problems within Serie A where "coaches don't let young players play because they are afraid of making mistakes".   Italy secured their first European Championship since 1968 with a penalty shoot-out win over England last July, but World Cup play-off heartbreak followed in March for the Azzurri against North Macedonia.   The narrow 1-0 defeat meant Italy missed out on a second successive World Cup, having failed to qualify for both Russia in 2018 and Qatar four years later.   Italy's failure was met with widespread criticism of the domestic game in which critics suggest younger players are not offered as many opportunities to develop, with a preference to rely on foreign players.   This was represented by Mancini's reliance on the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, with the younger players largely remaining on the periphery at Euro 2020.   Mancini, speaking at a forum to discuss Italian football on Friday, acknowledged little has changed in Italy to develop homegrown talent in recent years as he expressed his concern.   "In the last four years, little has happened and in fact in the national team we are always the same," he said, as quoted by CalcioMercato.   "The first thing is to give more confidence to the coaches as Milan did with [Stefano] Pioli: two years ago he seemed to be leaving, today he is winning the championship.   "Many coaches they don't let young players play because they are afraid of making mistakes. Being down to 32 per cent of Italian players [in Serie A] is highly limiting for all national teams.   "[Nicolo] Zaniolo arrived in Coverciano [Italy's training base] for the first time and looked like a child, after two months everything has changed. The boys improve quickly."

Mancini was quick to praise the race for this season's Scudetto, with Milan requiring just a point on the final day at Sassuolo to secure the title ahead of Inter, who have an inferior head-to-head record.

However, he reiterated his desire to see younger players provided with more opportunities.

"First of all we must say that it was a beautiful championship, where many have fought for the Scudetto until recently," he added. 

"I don't know who will win, I think Milan are at a bit of an advantage. But the matches must be played, then whoever wins will deserve it, be it Inter or Milan. Both have had a great championship anyway.

"Honestly I hoped more players could come through, but in recent years the situation hasn't changed: there are many good young people who can't find chances."

As for Italy's failings in World Cup qualification, Mancini is targeting a response from his side, who start their Nations League campaign at home to Germany on June 4.

"We absolutely didn't deserve to go out, but we have to accept defeat and start again," he continued. 

"We know we don't have big choices, but we have to come up with something like what happened four years ago."

Manchester City's dramatic Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid this season is apparently cause for another raid on the transfer market.

After already wrapping up Erling Haaland's transfer from Borussia Dortmund, the midfield is the next area of business.

With veterans in the midfield likely on their way out at the Etihad Stadium at this end of this season, replacements could soon be on the way.

TOP STORY – CITY EYE PHILLIPS AS FERNANDINHO REPLACEMENT 

Manchester City have emerged as contenders for the signature of Leeds United and England midfielder Kalvin Phillips, according to the Mirror.

While Manchester United have also identified Phillips as a potential addition for their midfield, the 26-year-old has reportedly made it clear to his inner circle that he will not join Leeds' fierce rivals.

However, Phillips would appear likely to leave Leeds if they are relegated, with West Ham, Aston Villa and Newcastle United all also linked.

Fernandinho will depart City at the end of the season, while Ilkay Gundogan could follow, and the £50million-rated Phillips is a more attainable target than £100m international team-mate Declan Rice.

ROUND-UP

– According to Bild, Paris Saint-Germain are prepared to move on a deal for Liverpool's Sadio Mane amid reports he is stalling on a renewal of his contract, which expires in 2023.

– Incoming Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag has added Ajax's Lisandro Martinez to the list of players he wants to bring to Old Trafford, the Telegraph is reporting.

United have also shown renewed interest in Lazio and Serbia midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, per Calciomercato.

– Chelsea want to sign Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli on a free transfer when his contract expires at the end of this season, Mundo Deportivo reports.

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