Italian journalist Luigi Garlando reflected on Rafael Leao’s start to the season with Milan and if he’s at risk of wasting his clear talents.
The 24-year-old Portuguese forward has started the season well on paper, scoring two goals and providing two assists in the club’s first four Serie A matches, but he failed to impress in their Champions League opener against Newcastle United, overcomplicating things in the final third.
Leao is the standout star in Stefano Pioli’s Milan squad and the obvious talismanic figure, making his performances key for the team as the work to win back the Scudetto after last season’s disappointment.
The Rossoneri’s painful 5-1 Derby della Madonnina loss to Inter rocked the boat after the club’s strong start to the campaign and their draw with Newcastle did little to improve the mood, causing questions to start circulating amongst supporters.
Writing on page 16 of today’s Gazzetta dello Sport, journalist Garlando weighed in on Leao’s position and pondered if he was at risk of ultimately failing to live up to his potential.
“There were the Taco de Dios (Socrates) and the Backheel of Allah (Rabah Madjer), since Tuesday night there has also been the Devil’s Backheel (Rafa Leao): the unfortunate one missed in the 34th minute of the first half of Milan-Newcastle by the Rossoneri forward, who knotted his feet and rolled fantastically to the ground, instead of ‘smashing the goal’, as his coach had wished.
“In another context, one would have smiled at the levity. Poetic licence. The mistake brought to mind the absurd backheel with which Mario Balotelli, at Manchester City in 2011, tried to score, all alone in front of the LA Galaxy goalkeeper. Roberto Mancini, furious, replaced him. But it was still a summer friendly.
“In May 2022, in Turkey, Ballotelli’s goal went in: a right-footed Rabona instead of the convenient left-footed diagonal shot. But his team, Adana, were rampant (7-0 at the end) and Mario had already scored four times. On Tuesday at the San Siro, however, the context was sportively more dramatic.
“It was Champions League. Milan could not score, and the draw risked immediately complicating qualification. There was absolutely no need to indulge in a Balotelli moment. A few days after a humiliating derby, then.
“The last man to be able to afford it was Leao himself, freshly renewed, who will earn €35m over the next five years and who, with his levity, put the UEFA premiums for access to the Round of 16, expected in the budget, even more at risk. For these reasons, Leao was guilt-ridden at the end of the game.
“I’m the best? The most disheartening moment was not Tomori’s scolding on the pitch or the dark faces of teammates and coach in the locker room, but the MVP award given to him by UEFA. It sounded like mockery. ‘I’m the best?’ The Portuguese didn’t want to collect it, knowing full well he didn’t deserve it, but he was trapped by protocol obligations.
“He had to have his photo taken with the statuette, which he will certainly not display in his living room. It was not easy to meet relatives either. Rafa’s entire family was present at the San Siro. Perhaps it was for them that he wanted to score that unforgettable goal, with a heel.
“Balotelli still comes to mind, in tears, after the Euro 2012 final, lost 4-0 to Spain. Tears of frustration at not being able to give his elderly parents, present in Warsaw, what he would have liked.
“Also bringing Mario and Rafa closer together was that elbow-high carousing that can be mistaken for sufficiency, for the presumption of someone who has talent and feels exempt from the heavy work, of running and fatigue.
“And instead, talent is a seedling that, if it is not joined by work and will, does not grow. Balotelli, who was promised the Ballon d’Or, let it dry up; Leao, who doesn’t throw darts, doesn’t shoot fireworks at home, and leaves the pitch with cramps, still has time.
“At 24, Rafa is still at the crossroads of his future: will he be Balotelli or Mbappe? Will he let his exceptional potential wither away, content to spend his talent every now and then, hidden in the folds of the match, as in the derby and in the Champions League, or will he finally set it alight and make the leap in quality, becoming more continuous, meaner, more decisive?
“Now is the time to choose: 24 years is not a young age. Mancini often repeated this to Balotelli: ‘Mario, look how quickly time passes. Young people feel eternal and instead they grow old’. Lamine Yamal at 16 is already a star player for Barcelona.
“At 20, Jude Bellingham has already taken Real Madrid. At 24, Mbappe has already won a World Cup final by scoring one goal and lost another by scoring three. There is no way that, at 24, a talent like Leao is out of the 30 candidates for the Ballon d’Or. Milan are not to blame.
“Perhaps, Tuesday’s embarrassment and the mocking UEFA statuette will give him the right push to turn around, to move decisively towards the Mbappe branch. If you search on YouTube, you will easily find a spectacular backheel goal scored by Kylian during a national team training session. In training, indeed.
“When in the game the Frenchman unleashes his long legs and attacks the goal, he becomes a fierce hunter, selfish perhaps, but never prissy. That is one of the steps Leao must take. Speaking of Rafa, there is no word Pioli repeats more: step. The boy must not be content with the many good things he does, he can do better if he climbs the last steps.
“On Saturday, the Portuguese should start on the bench against Verona. Out of turnover logic, not punishment. You learn from mistakes, not punishments. You don’t need them.
“Leao will return next Wednesday in Cagliari. But the date to mark is October 25, the night of PSG-Milan. The face-to-face with Mbappe, gushing class and pride, could show us the new Leao. In the city of the Ballon d’Or.”