Rafael Leão is carrying AC Milan, and should punt Cristiano Ronaldo off of Portugal

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Rafael Leão standing out.

Rafael Leão standing out.
Image: Getty Images

In a lot of ways, AC Milan mirrors Serie A overall. They’re incredibly fun, and were able to take advantage of Juventus’s slide into the abyss and a blip from Inter to win the Scudetto last year. But how good they actually are, much like the league as a whole, it is hard to pin down. Considering that they got absolutely ass-waxed in the Champions League last year, it was fair to say that they were Italy’s best team, but overall they were only okay-to-good instead of great. Most Milan observers would tell you they’re still in the midst of a project, and they’re working toward being the next great Milan side but aren’t there yet.

They’re certainly stout in defense, where Simon Kjӕr and Fikayo Timori have become one of Italy’s best centerback pairings. Their fullbacks can be pretty spicy in the attack with Theo Hernandez. Sandro Tonali anchors the midfield with Ismaël Bennacer. There’s more than a few options to play either as a #10 or as the wide forwards. And yet, as they were last year, Milan don’t really have a central striker. They’re once again shoving Olivier Giroud into the spot and letting his antisocial handsomeness distract people, and he contributes just enough big goals to keep Milan ticking. But one can’t help but wonder if the one thing keeping them from being a true European power is a world-ender of a forward.

Or maybe Rafael Leão will render that moot.

Leão has been definitely on one this season, scoring four goals and adding four assists in just seven games this season while mostly playing on the left of the front three. The four goals tie him for third in the league, and the four assists also rank him third in Serie A. His eight goal contributions have him tied for first. He’s averaging the third most shots per game, third most shots-on-target per game, while also ranking in the top-10 in progressive carries and in the top five in progressive carries into the opponent’s penalty area.

Saturday was a pretty perfect example of what Leão has meant to Milan. Still stuck in a post-international break haze and definitely stuck in the mud away to Empoli, Milan were under threat. It was 0-0 into the 79th minute, and didn’t look much like changing. Then Leão did this (1:30 into the video):

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And he salted away the game, after Milan had somehow surrendered and regained their lead in injury time (2:00 in the above video). The way he scorches away from the Empoli defenders while still having the ball, and then comes up with the most delicate chip at full speed, is simply quite rude. And it’s what Leão has been doing all season, and most of last year as well, being a terror with the ball at his feet with his control and speed. Leão’s signature move is to pick up the ball wide on the left, bamboozle any fullback and accelerate away at F1 rates into the box and finish from a tight angle. He’s so quick it’s hard to stop when you know it’s coming.

No wonder Chelsea is sniffing around.

Leão has not yet made the same splash for Portugal, though he was only called up for the first time last year and has started only three games. And this is where things get a little tasty. Leão should be one of the breakout stars in the World Cup, but he has to get on the field first. And to get him on the field, it might involve removing only the best player the country has ever produced and national and world icon in Cristiano Ronaldo.

What Portugal could have in their front three is Leão, Bernardo Silva, and Diogo Jota. Or you could swap in Jaoa Felix for either of the wide forwards, or move Silva into the midfield where he frequently plays for Man City to join Bruno Fernandes. Whatever combination of three forwards that don’t wear #7 are fast, dynamic, and could be press-happy if so instructed (though not something Leão does well now). It would be highly mobile, constantly interchanging, and popping up in space. It would be a nightmare for any defense Portugal comes up against in Qatar.

But there are two problems. One, Ronaldo can’t just be put on the bench without some sort of national uprising, and two, Portugal manager Fernando Santos gets a coronary any time more than one player at a time crosses the halfway line. Santos has an unending line of credit in Portugal, because under his stewardship they did win Euro 2016…winning one game in 90 minutes, and that was over Wales. They got lucky in a penalty shootout and in extra time and benefitted from the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams, providing a round of 16. They did dick in the last World Cup or this year’s Euros, meekly bowing out in the Round of 16. They even tried hard to biff qualifying for this World Cup but saved themselves at the last hurdle. Santos should have been out on his ass long ago, but thanks to that one trophy, he’s got carte blanche. Trophies are forever and all that, but at some point the process needs to be seen more than the results.

And Portugal have the same problems that Man United do when Ronaldo plays. One, he neuters Fernandes by dropping into his space because he can’t get behind defenses anymore. Two, his lack of movement means a runway into Portugal’s midfield when the other team has the ball. It doesn’t have to be this way. By using any of his three mobile forwards, Santos could cut this off while also having way more angles to threaten from. Portugal don’t face the toughest group in Qatar, lined up against South Korea, Ghana, and Uruguay. They’d better win it, because if they don’t they’ll be staring at Brazil in the Round of 16.

Portugal have a chance to be one of the more fun teams in the World Cup, and with a serious chance to make some noise. All they have to do is remove the obelisk on the field, though it’s too late to remove the obelisk in the manager’s chair. Sadly they won’t, and we’ll probably have to wait until Euro 2024 to see what they could truly be.

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