As AC Milan’s miserable title defence continues to meander off course, another distant dream is vaguely beginning to take shape.
They have reached their first Champions League quarter-final in 11 years having ended an 11-year wait for a scudetto. There they will face Napoli, who have this year raced away with their domestic crown. Meanwhile, last season’s challengers Inter Milan potentially lie in wait in the semi-finals.
Three Italian sides sit on one side of the draw. Only Benfica can prevent one of them from reaching the final.
Milan needed Rafael Leao to blow their compatriots out of the water domestically last season, and they will hope he can do so again in Europe.
Rapid, tall and well-built, Leao’s explosive wing play has taken Stefano Pioli’s side to new heights in the past two years.
One of just three players to at least 10 goals and assists in Serie A last season — reaching that milestone with three assists in 19 minutes to seal the league title on the final day — few can turn nothing into something as routinely as the Portuguese 23-year-old does.
Even throughout a comparatively understated season this time around, a relentless pursuit of chaos sets him apart.
With 71 efforts on goal – around 3.7 per 90 minutes – only shot-machines Victor Osimhen and Lautaro Martinez have attempted more. An average of 5.1 ‘box entries’ — or combined passes and dribbles into the penalty area — captures his persistence.
Operating primarily on the left, Leao is a menace on the transition and tears across the turf. Standing at almost 6ft 2in (189cm), his long strides allow him to glide past his peers with a Usain Bolt-like nonchalance — chest puffed, head high, with the odd quick glance to the side to make sure he has won the race.
In one of many pitch-sweeping moves last season, Leao’s rampaging run at Verona to complete the Milan turnaround remains one of his best-timed works. Sensing an opportunity as the ball breaks for Alexis Saelemaekers, Leao sets his sights on the green grass ahead. Keep an eye on that clock, and indeed poor Antonin Barak a foot or so ahead.
Within six seconds, Leao has powered past Barak and set after a through ball that sends him slightly wide. He retrieves the wayward ball and drives up the left half-space, before slowing down slightly and squaring up to his Czech chaser…
He then accelerates away, careering into the penalty area before squaring perfectly for Sandro Tonali to tap home — just eight seconds after he started his forward foray 80 metres further back, with a slight detour and a deliberate deceleration along the way…
A game flipped on its head in one electric passage of play.
Leao is also becoming more adept at using his frame to barge into higher-value positions earlier on in his runs.
In a similar breakaway goal, this time in the 96th minute at Empoli, Leao finds himself chasing a through pass from Ante Rebic…
Even with such space to gallop into, the forward makes his move early, taking a touch with the outside of his boot to curve his run in front of Petar Stojanovic and into a more central channel, where he can shield the ball with his body…
Then, as Razvan Marin charges in from the other side, Leao makes another subtle change of direction, to ensure he can protect the ball from the midfielder with his right thigh.
He shows incredible athleticism to sprint the length of the pitch so late in the game, follows it up with the presence of mind to ensure those degrees of separation from the chasing defenders and then rounds it off with the composure to produce a perfectly weighted scooped finish at full speed…
There are few who can lead a counter quite like Leao.
In tighter areas, too, Leao is talented when it comes to gliding through challenges and into pockets of space.
Particularly around the penalty area, he will often look to use skilful changes of direction and sudden bursts of acceleration to breeze past defenders.
In the recent euphoric 3-2 victory over Inter, Leao leaves Stefan de Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni wrong-footed with a feint to the right and a quick duck to the left…
Then explodes through the gap and into the penalty area before either has time to react, capping it off with a confident, far-post finish.
And against Verona, back in that game last May, Leao receives the ball in a wide, unpromising position, seemingly boxed into a corner by two markers…
But standing up to his man, he darts from out to in to leave his defender dumbfounded and races to the byline before producing a nutmegged square ball to assist Tonali…
Unfazed by tight spaces and aggressive markers, Leao is gone once you over-commit.
Moments of game-changing magic never seem far away.
Leao has not scored for Milan for over two months, but his more central performance against Tottenham Hotspur last week encapsulated his energy, seemingly on the cusp of ripping the game open at any moment.
With six dribble attempts, including a characteristic pitch-devouring run in the dying embers, he drew four fouls and drove into the penalty area twice, taking three shots and creating a further three opportunities.
He has managed 28 successful take-ons in the Champions League this season and averaged 5.3 attempted dribbles per game in Serie A, before following up his pointed drives with shots or key passes.
It feels as if a move inside could be the next experiment for Leao, who possesses the physical qualities to compete with sturdy central defenders.
Perhaps obscured by Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s incredible breakout season, Leao’s attacking numbers are quietly on their way to surpassing last season’s heights, with eight goals and six assists across the equivalent of just over 19 90-minute games this campaign.
The underlying numbers are great, too, taking more shots than he ever has before, generating more expected goals (xG), completing more passes into both the final third and the penalty area while accumulating more expected assists (xA) per game than he has in his four previous seasons at the professional level.
Leao’s leap has been clear this season. He averages close to two key passes and more than four progressive balls each game.
From central areas, he’s also proving capable of dropping deep and orchestrating fluid team moves.
Against Atalanta this month, for example, after jumping into midfield to receive the pass, Leao drags Rafael Toloi out of the back four, leaving space for others to attack.
Constantly scanning to survey the space, he glances over his shoulder well in advance of receiving the pass…
And again, with the ball on its way, spots Junior Messias running into the space that he has vacated…
Before producing a first-time pass on the half-turn, sending his team-mate through on goal to score.
With Toloi close to the halfway line as Messias receives the ball, Leao not only drags the defender away but also assesses the developing attack and plays a first-time ball to catch the defence flat-footed.
One issue for the 23-year-old is it can occasionally feel as if he launches into attacks with his eyes set on the green grass ahead, almost forgetting to bring the ball with him.
A Leao spectator can almost get as carried away. Even blind-alley runs are exciting, interesting, and usually relatively fruitful, often bundling through into more advanced positions and driving his team up the pitch.
Inconsistency is a factor, but it’s difficult to accuse Leao of lacking attacking endeavour. Only once has the forward failed to take a shot or register a key pass for Milan this season. He has also attempted at least five take-ons in more than half of his Serie A games this campaign.
The same can’t be said about his defensive contributions, however. He ranks in the lowest one per cent of all wingers for tackles, blocks, and touches in his own defensive third. In an era when the pressing as a unit is often paramount to success, perhaps defensive discipline is the next area for Leao to focus on.
That said, in terms of footballing audacity, fluidity and spectacle, very few can match his potential to set the world alight.
(Top photo: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)
This podcast is brought to you by MANSCAPED and Homefield Apparel! Get 20% off and FREE shipping with the promo code: MNB20 at Manscaped.com. Get 15% off at
The NFL offseason has provided its usual dose of excitement and drama. It has made our ESPN Fantasy Football analysts antsy to draft, so while we have to wait a
In the wake of the Cincinnati Bengals signing left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., offensive tackle Jonah Williams quickly requested a trade. Since the request, m
Premier League stars are SNUBBED in a list of football's 10 most valuable players - with Erling Haaland one of only TWO included by stats boffins -