Zlatan Ibrahimovic has matched a European top-five league 21st-century record, set by Cristiano Ronaldo last month, after scoring for Milan against Venezia.

The veteran forward tucked in from close range inside two minutes at Stadio Pierluigi Penzo on Sunday, bringing up his eighth Serie A goal of the season and his first of 2022.

It means Ibrahimovic has now found the net against 80 different clubs across Europe's big five leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1).

Since 2000, the only other player to have achieved that feat is Ronaldo, who reached the milestone with a goal in Manchester United's 3-1 win over Burnley at Old Trafford on December 30.

Ibrahimovic has now also scored in every calendar year since 1999, when he made his debut for Malmo in Sweden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roma boss Jose Mourinho raged at the performance of his side and the officials after a 3-1 loss to Milan at San Siro, before revealing he turned down the opportunity to manage the Rossoneri in 2019.

Roma were 2-0 down inside a dismal opening 15 minutes, while a shambolic end to the match saw their defenders Rick Karsdorp and Gianluca Mancini sent off.

Mourinho, while furious at the nature of Roma's collapse, also sought to apportion blame to the officials, who awarded Milan two penalties. The first was scored by Olivier Giroud, while the latter saw Rui Patricio save from substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

"The quality of the performance was not good," Mourinho said. "We gave away the ball so easily, our performance level was so low, but we were still in the game [until Karsdorp's dismissal].

"But if we talk about our errors then we also need to talk about the referee and VAR. I have not seen a single image where you can clearly see that the one [penalty] given to Milan in the first half was a penalty. I cannot see it. 

"You can see that Tammy [Abraham] makes a movement with his arm, but you can't see any sort of clear contact with the ball.

"[Gianluca] Aureliano [the VAR official] was at home, but clearly he wanted to be here, given that he was the one that stopped the action."

Mourinho was left even more frustrated when Nicolo Zaniolo and Roger Ibanez saw their own second-half penalty appeals denied.

"We just want consistency in the decisions," he added. "As I said, we played poorly, but in terms of the refereeing, we always seem to be the unlucky ones."

The former Inter coach then revealed he turned down the opportunity to manage the Rossoneri in 2019, before his ill-fated tenure at Tottenham.

"Three years ago, Milan wanted me, and I said 'no'," Mourinho claimed, before calling attention to the less-than-welcoming reception he was given by Milan's supporters. "After what happened I am doubly happy with my decision," he added. "They came, but I said, 'go home, I'm not coming'."

Mourinho has now won just four of his nine career clashes with Milan, losing both league fixtures this season, and his Giallorossi side now trail their conquerors by 13 points. 

Milan moved within one point of the Serie A summit with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Jose Mourinho's lacklustre Roma side at San Siro, who were reduced to nine men in the second half.

First-half goals from Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias put the hosts in a commanding position before Tammy Abraham dragged Roma back into the contest. 

After a string of Mike Maignan saves kept the hosts' lead intact, Rick Karsdorp's sending-off for two bookable offences put paid to any hope of Roma earning a point, and substitute Rafeal Leao added a third on the break late on before Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed a penalty following another red card, this time for Gianluca Mancini.

Milan were handed a brilliant start, with Giroud dispatching an eighth-minute penalty after Abraham was adjudged to have handled Theo Hernandez's fierce volley. 

Things quickly went from bad to worse for Mourinho's men. Giroud intercepted a dreadful backpass from Roger Ibanez, and although his strike came back off the post, Messias buried the rebound to double the hosts' lead after just 15 minutes.

The 2-1 half-time scoreline arguably flattered Roma, who found themselves back in the contest when Abraham diverted Lorenzo Pellegrini's shot past Maignan, seconds after being denied by the France international's reflex save.

Milan almost made another fast start in the second period, with Brahim Diaz crashing a fabulous effort against the bar on 50 minutes, before Maignan was forced into two more good saves by Abraham and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

With 20 minutes remaining, the already-booked Karsdrop received his marching orders for a desperate lunch on Hernandez on the edge of the penalty area, killing the visitors' hopes of leaving with a result. 

Alessandro Florenzi rattled the bar from the resulting free-kick, before Leao, returning from injury as a substitute, finished the contest with a late breakaway goal, his sixth of the season.

That was not the end of the drama, with Roma's Mancini joining Karsdrop for an early bath by bringing down Leao. Ibrahimovic, however, saw his penalty saved by Rui Patricio, maintaining some respectability for Mourinho's side.

 

What does it mean? Milan apply early 2022 pressure to Inter

Thanks to a raft of COVID-19 cases and Africa Cup of Nations call-ups, Stefano Pioli was forced to select a makeshift side, but they produced a largely accomplished display to move within a single point of cross-city rivals Inter in the title race.

Milan have also now won three consecutive league games against Roma for the first time since 1996.

Mourinho's men stay seventh, six points outside the top four.

Home comforts for Giroud

Former Arsenal and Chelsea man Giroud opened the scoring with his fifth league goal of the campaign, and all of the World Cup winner's strikes for Milan have come at San Siro.

Among all the other players to have netted five or more goals in a top-five European League this season, only Bruno Fernandes and Mattia Aramu have also scored all of theirs at home.

Milan press home their superiority

Pioli has masterminded Milan's title charge by implementing an exhilarating, high-pressing game at San Siro, forcing opponents into errors in perilous positions. 

Going into this game, no Serie A team had attempted more than the Rossoneri's tally of 37 shots from high turnovers this season. This quality was on display once again, with Messias' crucial second goal originating from Giroud intercepting Ibanez's slack pass.

What's next?

Notwithstanding a continuation of the coronavirus-caused chaos that has engulfed Serie A this week, Milan travel to Venezia for Sunday's early kick-off, while Roma face a huge clash with Juventus at the Stadio Olimpico later that day.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli has his sights set on signing a "complete defender" during the January transfer window.

The Rossoneri were rocked when Denmark captain Simon Kjaer was ruled out for the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury at the start of December.

Pioli declared following that major setback that he wanted to sign a replacement for centre-back Kjaer went the transfer market opened this month.

The 56-year-old on Wednesday stated that he will only bring in a player who ticks all the right boxes.

He said during a press conference: "We have clear and shared ideas. Kjaer's injury forces us to have an eye on defence. I have not made any other requests.

"We are looking for a complete defender, it's too important a role.

"We want one who can accept defensive one-v-ones with great timing and to have courage in the defensive phase.

"The defenders have to be the playmakers. They must have the ability to play, make the right choice even in possession of the ball.

"It will not be a roaring market for anyone, but I'm sure we'll find the right player."

Second-placed Milan return to action following the mid-season break with a Serie A clash against Roma at San Siro on Thursday.

They trail Inter by four points but Pioli believes they can mount a strong bid to win the title.

He said: "I don't care much about what they say outside Milanello. I see players who are aware, winning would be an extraordinary feat. But we have to believe in it and I expect a lot from everyone.

"We can do it if we keep the balance. We have pressure because we have been good at creating it with the results, then we'll do the math in the end."

January 1 2022 is a date Real Madrid and Kylian Mbappe have been anticipating for some time.

Los Blancos were the subject of two failed bids for the Paris Saint-Germain superstar in the previous transfer window.

But the new year sees Mbappe enter the final six months of his contract at the Parc des Princes meaning he is free to talk to clubs outside of France.

And it seems Madrid are more confident that ever of landing their top target.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID HAVE 'TOTAL OPTIMISM' ON MBAPPE

The future of Mbappe has dominated the rumour mill for months and Spanish publication Marca claims there is "total optimism" among the Madrid hierarchy they will land their man.

One complication is the fact the two teams are set to meet in a Champions League last-16 grudge match, with any announcement unlikely to happen before that tie.

But come July 1 there is growing expectation Mbappe will be a Madrid player, with the signing of Lionel Messi and potential future arrival of Zinedine Zidane as head coach seemingly not enough to convince him to remain in the French capital.

 

ROUND-UP

- Chelsea's need for defensive reinforcements may be exacerbated by the fact Andreas Christensen has no intention of signing a new contract. Spanish paper Sport says the Dane, who is out of contract at the end of the season, is close to joining Barcelona.

- Speaking of Barcelona, AS reports the future of Memphis Depay is shrouded in doubt. With Ferran Torres having arrived from Manchester City and Alvaro Morata a top target, Depay may be set for a close-season exit after a solitary campaign at Camp Nou.

- Manchester United could be about to get one over old boss Jose Mourinho by landing Boubacar Kamara. The Daily Mirror reports the Red Devils are attempting to beat Roma to the signing of the Marseille midfielder.

- Roma have also been in the hunt for Arsenal midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but they apparently face competition from Everton according to the Liverpool Echo.

- Over on the Red side of Merseyside, Italian agency ANSA is reporting Liverpool are about to pip Arsenal and Tottenham to the signing of Milan midfielder Franck Kessie.

- The Athletic suggested the Gunners are also likely to have more frustration. Arsenal have been linked with a move for Lille forward Jonathan David but will apparently have to wait until the end of the campaign to land their man.

Barcelona are in the market to bolster their squad in January.

The Spanish giants have financial challenges to overcome.

But after an ordinary start to the season, they are ready to get busy to build Xavi a stronger squad.

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA TO MOVE FOR LAPORTE

Barcelona could move for another Manchester City star, with The Sun reporting that the Blaugrana want to sign Spain international Aymeric Laporte.

The defender has lost his starting spot to John Stones and is said to be unsettled at City.

Barcelona announced a deal to sign Ferran Torres from City this week.

 

ROUND-UP

Juventus have no interest in a potential swap deal with Barcelona whereby Alvaro Morata would trade places with Memphis Depay, reports Football Italia.

Newcastle United are set to complete their first piece of January transfer business by signing Lille defender Sven Botman, claims the Mail.

Liverpool are interested in Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka, claims the Express. Saka is contracted to the Gunners until 2024.

Liverpool have also pitched a contract offer to Milan midfielder Franck Kessie, reports Ansa.

Franck Kessie should not think about leaving Milan for clubs that "aren’t of a higher level", according to former Rossoneri midfielder Massimo Ambrosini.

The Ivory Coast international is reportedly keen to leave Milan as a free agent when his contract at San Siro expires at the end of June.

Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are rumoured to be eyeing the midfielder, who is now into his fifth season at San Siro.

The 25-year-old has yet to agree a new deal with Milan, amid reports he is seeking a salary of around €8million.

Stefano Pioli's side are second in Serie A, four points behind reigning champions and rivals Inter after the opening 19 matches.

Ambrosini won four Scudetti and two Champions Leagues during his 18-year playing career with the club.

 

The former midfielder has urged Kessie to consider the prospect of joining a club that might not be able to compete at the same level as Milan.

"I have every respect for the professional decisions of fellow players," Ambrosini told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"All I can say is that these clubs who can offer a higher salary aren't of a higher level than Milan.

"The chance to bring home €8m rather than €6m should not be the priority if you are otherwise happy where you already are.

"He shouldn't think of Milan as a club of a secondary level."

Kessie has played 159 times for the club in Serie A since initially joining on loan from Atalanta in June 2017, with Napoli's Piotr Zielinski the only midfielder in the Italian top flight to register more appearances since then (163).

Newcastle United are set to flex their financial muscles during the January transfer window.

The Magpies are struggling in the Premier League drop zone even after claiming a 1-1 draw with Manchester United.

But following a change of ownership they have funds available to bolster their squad.
 

TOP STORY - MAGPIES KEEN ON BARCELONA'S UMTITI

Cashed-up Newcastle are considering a move for Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti according to The Sun.

The 2018 World Cup winner has fallen out of favour at Barcelona, who are looking to offload players due to their financial issues.

Eddie Howe's side have conceded a league-high 42 goals and want to shore up their backline to aid their case to avoid relegation.

 

ROUND-UP

- Bayern Munich have ramped up their bid to sign Leeds United's Raphinha, claims The Sun. Leeds remain hopeful of keeping the Brazil international.

- Chelsea have also entered the race to sign Raphinha according to the Express, who also claim they will allow Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech to depart.

- Tottenham are leading the way to secure the signature of Milan midfielder Franck Kessie with the two parties in advanced talks, reports the Express.

- Ex-Liverpool forward Philippe Coutinho's preferred new home is Arsenal,  with Barcelona keen to offload the Brazil international according to Sport.

- Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina are all on high alert with Torino's Italy international striker Andrea Belotti set to exit the club when his contract expires at season's end, reports Calciomercato.

Milan coach Stefano Pioli believes the race for the Scudetto is wide open despite Inter finishing 2021 as Serie A's 'Winter champions'.

Inter are four points clear at the top of the table as they bid to retain the title having wrested it from Juventus' grip last season.

Pioli's men took advantage of Napoli's loss at home to Spezia on Wednesday to move into second with a 4-2 win at Empoli.

And, as Serie A heads into its two-week break over the festive period, Pioli sees no reason why Inter cannot be overhauled.

"We won the Winter Champions title last season, but we didn't end up getting the Scudetto, so it's all wide open," Pioli told Sky Sport Italia.

"The objective is to keep improving. We had 66 points the first season, 79 the second, the target is to do better. We reached the midway stage now with one less point than last season, but I continue to believe we can finish with more.

"I keep saying it's a privilege to have high expectations on us, because it means we earned that pressure. I want to thank our fans and wish them a Merry Christmas, because they are supporting us with extraordinary passion. We hope to do even better in 2022."

Milan's victory, which saw Franck Kessie score twice while Alessandro Florenzi and Theo Hernandez were on target, marked a strong response to their 1-0 defeat to Napoli last time out.

"We played against a very difficult opponent, but reacted with character and determination," Pioli said.

"I always want to play better than the opposition, but today the points were the most important thing. We weren't coming off some good results, even if I remain convinced we didn't deserve to lose against Napoli, and needed this boost.

"Now we can rest a little easier and prepare for a tough January."

Milan moved into second in Serie A, taking advantage of a slip-up by Napoli with a 4-2 win at Empoli.

The Rossoneri entered the game having only lost one of their last nine Serie A meetings with Empoli and Franck Kessie's double, sandwiched by Nedim Bajrami's equaliser, put them on course to continue that run.

Despite a spirited effort from the hosts, Milan pulled away in the second half as Alessandro Florenzi's 62nd-minute free-kick and a fine Theo Hernandez strike made sure of the points despite Andrea Pinamonti converting a late penalty after VAR ruled Tiemoue Bakayoko had handled in the area.

With Napoli beaten at home by Spezia, Milan head into a two-week break in second and four points behind arch rivals and defending champions Inter.

Kessie broke the deadlock in the 12th minute, meeting Olivier Giroud's lay-off from Alexis Saelemaekers' cross with a composed finish into the bottom-left corner.

But it was Kessie's failure to clear from a corner that allowed Empoli to level matters six minutes later as Bajrami's effort proved too hot for Mike Maignan to handle.

Maignan got a crucial fingertip to Pinamonti's effort from a tight angle to turn it around the post.

And his intervention was rewarded further when Kessie restored Milan's advantage by firing his near-post strike through the legs of Guglielmo Vicario three minutes before half-time.

Bajrami went agonisingly close to restoring parity three minutes after the restart as he cut onto his right foot only to see his curling effort rattle the crossbar with Maignan beaten.

Milan made the most of that reprieve, taking complete command through Florenzi, who bent a sublime free-kick into the bottom-left corner shortly after the hour mark.

Hernandez added a further flourish when he crashed home on the half-volley seven minutes later, Pinamonti's penalty serving as little more than a consolation as Milan boosted their title hopes in the final game of the year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli claimed his side did not deserve to lose against Napoli, dismissing any suggestion the Rossoneri's fitness levels have dropped.

Napoli headed to San Siro having lost consecutive league games but were ahead inside five minutes when Eljif Elmas managed his first league goal since early November – Napoli scoring their quickest top-flight goal against Milan since November 2012.

Visiting goalkeeper David Ospina was rarely called upon in a somewhat sedate affair, though Franck Kessie saw a stoppage-time finish ruled out by VAR for offside against Olivier Giroud, who was on the floor in the build-up to the midfielder's opportunity.

Napoli held on for back-to-back league clean sheets against Milan for the first time since 2015, as Luciano Spalletti's team leapfrogged Milan to move into second on goal difference, the pair four points back from leaders Inter.

However, Pioli – without a win against Spalletti in nine league meetings – believes his side's performance did not warrant a loss as he refuted suggestions Milan might be flagging in terms of fitness.

"We are not tired, we proved it tonight [Sunday]," Pioli told DAZN. "Yes we can play with more quality, certainly, but we played a game from the point of view of intensity and energy among the best in the league.

"From a physical and willpower point of view, the team were pleasing in every way. We missed the last step.

"But there are the regrets, such as the goal conceded and the balls lost. We played almost always in the Napoli half, we played a real, serious and energetic game. We are lacking a bit of quality at the moment, but the team didn't deserve to lose. The data is very close in victories and defeats, the team had a balanced performance.

"The important numbers that we take into consideration are the acceleration and deceleration; the numbers are more or less those from the start of the season. The coach's eyes are also important, and the team didn't do badly tonight."

 

Pioli's team would have been heading into the final Serie A matchday of 2021, when they visit Empoli on Wednesday, in second place if Kessie's late strike had not been ruled out.

The Milan head coach, who was pictured by television cameras among the celebrations near Napoli's goal for the apparent equaliser, accepted the decision – but still expressed confusion as to how Giroud was adjudged to be involved in the play.

"I know that in the end they will say that the ruling is right, but I ask how does a player on the ground, who does nothing to intervene, how does he cause damage to the defender? Giroud does nothing to intervene," Pioli said.

"Now let's lick our wounds and try to do better for Wednesday."

Eljif Elmas' first-half strike was the difference as Napoli leapfrogged Milan into second in Serie A with a 1-0 victory on Sunday. 

Luciano Spalletti's side lost consecutive league games against Atalanta and Empoli but struck first after just four minutes at San Siro through Elmas' header – his first top-flight goal since August.

Stefano Pioli's team pressed on in the second half but were unable to mount a comeback as their winless home league run against Napoli – which dates back to December 2014 – continued, although only a VAR intervention denied Franck Kessie a late equaliser.
 
Napoli overtake Milan to move into second, with the pair four points back from reigning champions Inter heading into the final matchday of 2021 on Wednesday.

The visitors were soon ahead when Elmas nodded in Piotr Zielinski's corner at the near post, Napoli scoring their fastest Serie A goal against Milan since November 2012.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic responded by flicking a header wide, while Alessandro Florenzi blasted a speculative long-range half-volley just off target as Milan failed to test David Ospina before the interval.

Ospina, though, was required immediately after the break to palm over from Ibrahimovic, with the Colombia international denying Junior Messias moments later.

Napoli had conceded six of their past seven league goals in the final 30 minutes, while Milan had scored the joint-most in that period (15), and Messias almost furthered that record but curled just wide.

Kessie thought he had netted a late leveller as he swept into the bottom-left corner, only for VAR to judge the prone substitute Olivier Giroud to be offside as the visitors managed to hang on to an important victory.

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