Time for Milan ace to step up and show worth after injury blow for Pioli

Rafael Leao AC Milan

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic currently sidelined as the Serie A season prepares to restart this month, Milan will need Rafael Leao to step up and fill the void.

As noted by the club’s official site, the Swede suffered a calf injury in training last week and while there was relief that it wasn’t more serious with the Rossoneri ruling out any damage to his Achilles tendon, he is expected to undergo more tests in the coming days to determine how long he’ll be sidelined for.

SEE MORE: How Milan could line up without Ibrahimovic after injury blow: Decision on system, big role for key man

After it was officially announced on Monday evening that Milan’s first Serie A game back will be on June 22 against Lecce, it remains to be seen if that gives Ibrahimovic enough time to recover in order to feature. Given he’s already missing training this week, the likelihood is that he won’t be risked immediately even if he is considered to be at coach Stefano Pioli’s disposal.

That in turn leaves a void to be filled up front, and looking at our options, it points toward Leao being given the nod to lead the line with support around him.

As noted by Football Italia, Milan were said to have splashed out up to €35m on the 20-year-old last summer, and while we’ve seen flashes of his quality and potential, he’s managed just two goals and two assists in 22 appearances so far this season and it’s fair to expect much more from him.

His pace, movement, directness and threat in front of goal make him a real talent, but ultimately he’s still too raw and has yet to pair those qualities with experience and maturity.

While we’ve seen moments of stand-out class, as evidenced by his goal against Fiorentina, question marks can also be raised over his work-rate and attitude at times as he hasn’t shown enough hunger and desire for a young player still looking to prove himself and make his mark at the top level.

If he can learn from that, pair it all together and take on board what he’s learnt from Ibrahimovic having had an invaluable opportunity to train and play alongside him since January, then it could hopefully lead to a much-improved Leao after the lockdown.

This is ultimately a poor Milan attack in general. We’ve scored just 28 goals in 26 Serie A games so far this season, the worst tally of the top 13 sides in the standings.

It’s going to take more than just Leao, but it would certainly help if the Portuguese starlet is on his game and ready to do what is required to lead the frontline and not only feed off what the creative players around him provide him with, but also to involve others and create a group dynamic that poses a real threat to the opposition.

Milan need goals from him, but he can also stretch defences with his pace and leave space in the final third that the likes of Ante Rebic, Hakan Calhanoglu and Samu Castillejo can potentially exploit. That’s the balance that Leao must find along with being a presence in the box, otherwise he will merely find himself becoming isolated, frustrated and staring at an underwhelming debut campaign at the club.

In his defence, it’s a lot of responsibility and pressure for a young player who is still adapting and looking to prove his worth in a new culture, environment, league and squad. However, that ultimately comes with being at Milan, and it’s going to be a real test of his character and quality in the coming weeks to help ensure that we don’t miss Ibrahimovic and perhaps even find a long-term solution in his absence.