Brahim Diaz: Massive Milan derby could see the Messi of Malaga become the star of San Siro

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Brahim Diaz AC Milan 2022-23
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With Rafael Leao likely to miss Wednesday's Champions League semi-final against Inter, one of Pep Guardiola's former proteges could prove decisive

Is it finally happening? Is Brahim Diaz belatedly becoming a star? The Gazzetta dello Sport recently labelled him AC Milan's most improved player since the turn of the year, and it's easy to understand why.

There have been a succession of big performances in big games and, at 23, Diaz looks like finally fulfilling his enormous potential. Remember, they were calling him 'The Messi of Malaga' before he had even turned 13.

By that stage, Pep Guardiola had already tried to bring him to Barcelona, going so far as to give the youngster a tour of Camp Nou alongside the actual Lionel Messi. The Blaugrana later agreed a deal with Diaz's father, Sufiel Abdelkader, but Malaga managed to hold onto their most prized protege with the promise of senior football by the age of 16.

However, the Andalusians efforts ultimately proved in vain...

  1. 'We couldn't compete with City'

    'We couldn't compete with City'

    Three months after his 14th birthday, Diaz agreed to join Manchester City. No matter that he wouldn't be allowed to play in any official youth matches for two years - because of FIFA regulations on the movement of minors - a transfer to the Etihad Stadium was just too good to turn down, as far as Diaz and his father were concerned.

    "The clubs don't come to me, they go to the parents," the former director of Malaga's academy, Manel Casanova, subsequently explained to GOAL. "We tried to fight, we offered him a contract with objectives, sporting objectives, but we couldn't compete with City."

  2. 'Pep told me my time will come'

    When Diaz arrived in Manchester in 2015, Manuel Pellegrini was still in charge, but Guardiola arrived the following year, immediately boosting the No.10's hopes of being fast-tracked to the first team. Indeed, just over a month into the Catalan's first season at the helm, Diaz made his first appearance for the club. The following week, he put pen to paper on his first professional contract.

    "Pep has told me to keep working hard," Diaz said at the time, "and that my time will come." But not quickly enough for Diaz. He grew impatient after being afforded just 15 outings in all competitions over the course of the next two-and-a-half seasons and refused to extend a contract that was set to expire in the summer of 2019.

  3. Upsetting Guardiola with Madrid move

    Upsetting Guardiola with Madrid move

    As a result, City reluctantly agreed to sell Diaz to Real Madrid during the 2019 January transfer window, for €17 million (£15.5m/$19m), so as to avoid losing him for nothing six months later.

    Guardiola was bitterly frustrated by Diaz's departure, insisting the club had done "absolutely everything" to convince him to stay. "Of course, going to Real Madrid is not a bad step," he conceded, before pointedly adding, "Hopefully, he can get the minutes he didn’t get in the last period for many reasons..."

  4. More Fortnite than football
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    More Fortnite than football

    Diaz didn't, though. He ended up playing more Fortnite than football in Madrid. That was partly down to the pandemic, but it was primarily because of his inability to force his way into the starting line up, most notably under Zinedine Zidane, who appeared to have little faith in a diminutive, two-footed talent that had drawn comparisons to David Silva at City.

    Diaz insisted he had no issue with the Frenchman, and no regrets over his decision to move to Madrid, but it was clear that he needed to leave after just 15 Liga appearances - and only one goal - in two seasons at Santiago Bernabeu. And that's when Paolo Maldini came calling. Just as he had done with Theo Hernandez, the Milan director identified a diamond in the rough at Madrid.

    Truth be told, there are still some edges in Diaz's game that need to be smoothed out. His three-year loan spell at San Siro has featured dreadful droughts in front of goal and constant questions over his consistency. There's no disputing his talent, of course, but for many it's telling that Diaz is now set to declare for Morocco after failing to add to his solitary appearance for Spain two years ago.

  5. Pioli's role in Diaz's development

    Pioli's role in Diaz's development

    However, as well as increasing his output this season - he has six goals and as many assists - Diaz retains an undeniable ability to take the breath away with blistering breaks. In Milan's recent wins over Napoli, in Serie A and the Champions League, Diaz bamboozled both Mario Rui and Stanislav Lobotka with fiendishly fast footwork on two separate occasions. In each instance, the stunning show of skill led to a goal.

    Stefano Pioli has been utterly integral to Diaz's improvement, with the Milan boss never having lost faith in a forward who has often frustrated fans. "He is a complete player, he has quality and a spirit of sacrifice," the Milan boss told the Gazzetta. "I work really well with him and I'd like to continue training him."

    Pioli's wish is likely to be granted. Maldini remains very keen to extend Diaz's stay in Milan and is optimistic about his chances of agreeing a permanent deal with Madrid for €22m (£20m/$24m). It would be a bona fide bargain buy.

    Diaz is obviously not the finished article, even as he approaches his 24th birthday. But that's precisely why Pioli wants to hold onto him. He is acutely aware that there is still so much more to come from Diaz and has always insisted that he just "needed time to mature".

  6. Diaz's time to shine at San Siro
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    Diaz's time to shine at San Siro

    Wednesday's colossal Champions League semi-final clash with Inter should certainly provide us with the clearest indication yet as to how much Diaz has developed since his time in Manchester and Madrid. With Rafael Leao out, and Ismael Bennacer likely to be deployed as a kind of defensive-attacking midfielder, much of the creative burden will fall upon Diaz's shoulders on the right-hand side of the attack.

    He's always had a massive amount of belief in his ability. Maybe too much at times. He's arguably been held back by his eagerness to move forward as quickly as possible, paying a price for his impatience. But it's hard to be too critical of a character that says he actually "likes" pressure and hopes that fans have as much "fun" watching him as he does playing.

    So, while it has perhaps taken him longer than expected to get to this point, all that matters is that he's finally here, enjoying himself at the very highest level. Indeed, on Wednesday night, the Messi of Malaga could well be the star of San Siro.