Using his body and strength to open up his body to beat two players, a shimmy to the left to dribble past another two defenders with quick feet to slot the ball home in front of the Curva Sud, a prominent youngster was born.
It may have turned out to be a consolation in the 3-1 loss to Fiorentina and there may not have been an avalanche of supporters celebrating behind the goal. Still, Rafael Leão’s incredible solo goal over four years ago became the very first glimpse of an up-and-coming talent.
From that moment, the Portuguese starlet was never overly consistent to the point where frustration began to set in from the Milan faithful – pondering whether it would be another case of wasted ability.
What most people forget is that Leâo was a late bloomer during the successful Scudetto run, scoring seven goals and providing eight assists in the final 19 Serie A fixtures of the 2021/22 campaign. Even when he doesn’t have a goal contribution to his name, the space he creates for his team-mates when the 24-year-old is double-teamed is also indispensable.
Once he claimed the league MVP award 18 months ago, it was only natural that the spotlight would be attentive to Leâo considering the enormous expectations that he had helped create from his scintillating displays on the left wing. Those high expectations were echoed by Milan as they Fended off heavy interest from Chelsea in what was viewed as a massive statement of intent.
However, it’s been an underwhelming season by Leão’s lofty standards, with his last domestic goal registered at the end of September against Hellas Verona. For a player of that quality, his performances simply haven’t been good enough (albeit a hamstring injury sustained earlier in the season hasn’t helped).
In December, Sky revealed data that showed when Leão has featured on the pitch over the past two seasons, Stefano Pioli’s men have averaged 1.87 points per game compared to 0.86 when he’s been on the sidelines in a worrying trend.
So much so, it became blatantly clear of the over-reliance on Leão last season, completely exposing Milan’s lack of depth on the right-hand side which was found out particularly against Inter Milan in the Champions League semi-finals.
Although Leão hasn’t set the world on fire in the past few months, a silver lining can be drawn with the rest of the forward line picking up the broken pieces.
Seven goals and four assists for new signing Christian Pulisic has quickly made the Milan faithful fall in love with the American. Not to say that there isn’t room for improvement in terms of consistency, Pulisic has proven in the first half of the season that he can score important goals and provide moments of magic when the game is crying out for inspiration.
After a slow start to life, Nigerian talent Samuel Chukwueze is becoming an integral part of Pioli’s plans both in the starting lineup and as an impact substitution, offering an added spark and substance in front of goal to back up his undeniable skillset.
These two signings demonstrate a stark contrast between former Rossoneri right-wingers Junior Messias and Alexis Alexis Saelemaekers, who with all due respect, were never Milan-calibre players, highlighted through the overuse of Leão on the left side which caused too much predictability and not enough versatility.
#ACMilan with Leao (last two seasons):
➤ Games: 62
➤ Wins: 33
➤ Losses: 12
➤ Avg. points per game: 1.87
Milan without Leao:
➤ Games: 7
➤ Wins: 2
➤ Losses: 5
➤ Avg. points per game: 0.86
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) December 7, 2023
Who would’ve thought that former Real Madrid striker Luka Jović would be talked about as one of the most in-form forwards in Italy? The 26-year-old is slowly rediscovering his confidence to play a major role in Milan salvaging their season, boding well with an ageing Olivier Giroud not getting any younger.
Five goals in the past five domestic games for Jović have rightfully entered him into the frame of being seriously considered as the first-choice centre-forward ahead of the Frenchman – something that could not be said in previous years under Pioli.
Then there’s Noah Okafor, also putting his best foot forward in an attempt to persuade the management for more minutes on the pitch. Three goals in the league with minimal opportunities has been an impressive return in what is another viable and reliable option.
Leão’s presence is critical if Milan is to win trophies and achieve their objectives both on and off the field, but it’s a reassuring and positive sign that his teammates have been able to step up to the plate to accommodate for their star man’s poor performances.
It seems like Pioli is slowly steadying the ship yet again – with or without Leão. When Milan’s most talented asset begins to hit top form again, it will be the icing on the cake.