AC Milan's only hope: Returning Rafael Leao out to lead one of the Champions League's great comebacks
"Hell is empty, all the devils are here!" The stunning tifo unfurled by fans ahead of last Wednesday's Champions League derby with Inter should have been the defining image of AC Milan's week. Instead, it was the remarkable sight of Stefano Pioli and his players being lectured by an ultra on Saturday evening as they silently stood in front of the away section at Stadio Alberto Picco.
Were they being threatened or encouraged? Pioli and club president Paolo Scaroni both insist it was the latter, and there was a very public show of support from another set of fans at Milanello the very next day. However, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) is clearly not so sure, having already opened an investigation into the impromptu pep talk after the Spezia setback.
What's already clear, though, is that Milan's campaign is on the brink of complete collapse...
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'We have to believe we can beat Inter'
As Pioli admitted to DAZN after a shock 2-0 loss that leaves the Rossoneri fifth in the Serie A standings, four points outside of the Champions League places with just three rounds remaining, "There aren't many more opportunities left to make this a positive season. We have to believe that we have a chance of beating Inter."
The Milan players have a chat with the Milan ultras after their 2-0 defeat at Spezia. 😳 pic.twitter.com/yCt2dZTwb1— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) May 13, 2023
The return of Rafael Leao should least inspire some confidence in what would be one of the great Champions League comebacks, with Milan trailing Inter 2-0 after last week's first leg. Remember, the only side to have ever won a semi-final after losing the first leg by two goals or more is Liverpool, who overturned a 3-0 deficit against Barcelona on a famous night at Anfield in 2019.
Divock Origi, of course, played a prominent role in that dramatic turnaround, but it would be optimistic to expect a repeat performance from the Belgian at San Siro on Tuesday night, given he has managed to prove a woeful waste of money despite joining on a free transfer last summer.
Indeed, if the last week has taught us nothing else, it's that Milan have a shocking lack of depth in attack.
Leao like a young Henry
As was made painfully clear once again at the weekend, Pioli simply cannot make do without Leao, and to a lesser degree Olivier Giroud, who was left on the bench against Spezia in the hope that Milan could make do without their regular No.9 while giving the 36-year-old's legs a much-needed rest. However, Ante Rebic, who led the line, Leao's replacement Alexis Saelemaekers, Brahim Diaz and Origi didn't manage a single shot on target between them.
Giroud's return to the starting line up will obviously give Milan a much-needed reference point up front against Inter, but it is Leao who is fundamental to Milan's forward line. The Rossoneri simply do not carry anything like the same attacking threat without a prodigious talent that Alessio Tacchinardi has repeatedly claimed has the same raw talent as a young Thierry Henry.
"The characteristics of the two players are the same: you see the pace in one-on-ones and they always go on the outside to break through the opponent's defence," the former Juventus midfielder once told Tuttosport. "I was slaughtered on social media for this comparison. But just compare the videos and there’s nothing else to say: they're the same."
- (C)Gettyb Images
'I have found myself again'
However, what Tacchinardi and several others have said, including Pioli and former Milan director Zvonomir Boban, is that Leao sometimes lacks the requisite discipline and drive to be one of the very best players in the world, which is odd, given we're talking about a young man that idolises Cristiano Ronaldo, a man rightly renowned for his worth ethic.
The net result is that he sometimes goes missing, not just in matches, but for significant stretches of the season. At one point during the current campaign, he went nearly three months without a goal, which is, to be brutally honest, unacceptable for a player blessed with such incredible natural ability. Milan lost five Serie A games during that drought, which is why they're in very real danger of failing to qualify for next season's Champions League.
The fear was that the 23-year-old had been distracted by the ongoing speculation surrounding his future, but he responded to the mounting criticism with a reminder of his many gifts by tearing Napoli to shreds at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona at the start of April.
"I only like to listen to my coach and those who work [at Milan]," he told DAZN after scoring two beautiful goals in a stunning 4-0 demolition of the runaway league leaders. "The people who talk outside the club don’t interest me. It just fires me up more. I had a few complicated months, but now I have found myself again thanks to my coach and my team."
Inter's derby domination
The real Rafael Leao certainly stood up in Milan's Champions League quarter-final tie with the same side, the Sporting CP product evoking memories of Ruud Gullit with his breath-taking assist for Giroud in the decisive 1-1 draw in Naples that set up a Derby della Madonnina in the last four.
Comparisons made in the Italian press about Leao's run being similar to Gullit's against Maradona's Napoli in the classic May '88 encounter.— Emmet Gates (@EmmetGates) April 19, 2023
However, it is going to take something even more special to earn Milan a place in the final. Inter don't just have a healthy lead and 'home' advantage, they also go into the game on a seven-game winning streak in all competitions.
Even more importantly from a psychological perspective, the Nerazzurri have won the past three Milan derbies, scoring six times without reply in the process.
The Rossoneri need rescuing
Leao, though, undoubtedly has it in him to turn this tie on its head. In full flight, there are few more fearsome sights in modern football, and the expectancy is that he will be fully fit and, perhaps more importantly, fully focused now that his future appears to have been sorted.
Indeed, the one good bit of news Milan fans received last week came on the day of the derby defeat, when it was widely reported that a breakthrough had belatedly been made in the club's protracted negotiations with Leao over a new contract. An extension until 2028 could even be announced after this week's second leg.
Despite complications relating to his time at Sporting, that an agreement has reportedly been reached between the two parties is unsurprising. Leao's fondness for the club is beyond dispute. Only last month, he told Sky Sport Italia, "I feel at home in Milan and I want to continue helping the team" - and right now the Rossoneri need rescuing.
Jobs on the line
Jobs are genuinely on the line ahead of the derby. If Milan were to be eliminated by their city rivals and then fail to finish in the top four, it's entirely possible that Pioli and technical director Paolo Maldini could be sacked - in spite of the fact that both men have played pivotal roles in the Rossoneri's resurgence over the past four years.
As last Saturday's surprising scenes in Spezia hammered home, the fans are frustrated, but the club's accountants will be even more concerned if there is no Champions League football at San Siro next season.
Given the high-pressure nation of the situation, then, it would perhaps be unfair for Milan to pin all of their hopes on Leao but, truth be told, that's the situation they now find themselves in. The winger said at the start of the season that after starring in a Scudetto success, his goal was to prove himself in the Champions League, and we've seen scintillating flashes of his class at times during the Rossoneri's run to the last four.
But on Tuesday, Milan desperately need a complete performance from a player that Boban has previously claimed has only realised half of his potential. Their season arguably depends upon it.