Monday evening’s clash between unbeaten Milan and Roma at San Siro served as the main course of Serie A Week 5, a marquee matchup that put two premium veteran strikers, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Edin Džeko, front and centre.
For the Big Swede, it was business as usual, another two-goal, 'Father Time'-defying performance for the third straight league match, while the Bosnian yet again proved why he is a priceless component to the Giallorossi at 34 by scoring one himself.
Eventually, the two sides shared the spoils in what ended up a seesaw affair jam-packed with all the fixings: goals, bookings and of course officiating controversy. But, dubious penalty calls and poor refereeing aside, the spotlight in the aftermath was directed at Rafael Leão, who sparkled yet again in the thrilling 3-3 draw.
The 21-year old, who supplied Ibrahimović for the decisive goal in last weekend’s Derby della Madonnina victory against Inter, added to his tally with two more unique, and equally impressive, assists demonstrative of who he is as a player in current form.
Picking up the ball, Leão made his dash towards the final third, sending Rick Karsdorp into retreat mode before eventually lobbing over the top and in behind the defence with an inch-perfect pass to Ibrahimovic for the simple tap-in. His second, at first glance, looked strikingly similar to last weekend’s against Danilo D’Ambrosio; utilising quick feet, technical dribbling ability, long strides and lung-bursting acceleration into space near the byline to then square a ball for Alexis Saelemaekers, who scored the second goal on the night.
Over 72 minutes, the Sporting academy graduate made the most of his 30 touches, passing at an 83% completion rate, executing two key passes, creating two chances and pulling off four successful dribbles in an all-encompassing exhibition.
Nimble and with neat footwork, the attacker’s dribbling ability is holstered as the main weapon in his arsenal, wielding it in one-on-one situations and in the attacking transitional phase where many whiff in their attempts to clamp down on him. Ask D’Ambrosio and Karsdorp.
Unlike last season where Leão would showcase his off-the-chart talent in spurts, now the silky-dribbler’s attacking maneuvers are more purposeful and with substance. They tease and flirt with potential that is beginning to, at the very least, lend a morsel of credibility towards former Sporting academy coach Tiago Fernandes' bold affirmation of the forward being better than Cristiano Ronaldo at youth level.
Technically speaking, Leão has plenty to be special, and Stefano Pioli recognises that. The current coach has spoken highly of the young forward in the media, but it always seemed as though he was not satisfied with the work he has put in and demanded a bit more.
At every turn, the 55-year old will sing the praises of his players, but he also ensures they keep their heads down, feet firmly on the ground and are willing to work hard. This method of coaching can either make an individual stronger mentally or break him to the point where he is discouraged.
Even if there is still room for growth, it seems as though Leão has fully embraced and bought into Pioli’s approach rather than succumbing to it, and is becoming a better player as a result.
Sitting on two goals and three assists in four Serie A appearances already for the first-placed Rossoneri, Leão is brimming with the confidence that, when combined with his swagger and style of play, is a dangerous proposition for the rest of the Italian top-flight.