Despite the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it’s widely suggested that Rafael Leao may still struggle to break into the Milan starting line-up against Juventus on Friday.
Football returns in a matter of days as we face the Bianconeri in the second leg of our semi-final tie, and so the focus is steadily switching to what team Stefano Pioli will put out.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is both injured and suspended and so will play no part while Samu Castillejo and Theo Hernandez are suspended, and so we are certainly putting out a weakened XI.
In turn, Pioli must now find the solutions to try and book our place in the final, and from reports this week, it doesn’t sound as though Leao will feature in the starting line-up.
La Gazzetta dello Sport report that Milan will stick with the 4-2-3-1 system, but it will be Ante Rebic who leads the line when many would perhaps have presumed that his Portuguese teammate would be a better fit. Further, Antonio Vitiello notes in his tweet below that Leao is still on the fringes.
Verso #JuveMilan, a Milanello provato ancora lo stesso 11
Donnarumma, Conti, Kjaer, Romagnoli, Calabria, Kessie, Bennacer, Bonaventura, Paquetà, Calhanoglu, Rebic.
Modulo in alternanza 4231 e 4321, con Jack o Paquetà mezzala sinistra. Leao ancora tra le riserve
— Antonio Vitiello (@AntoVitiello) June 8, 2020
That’s arguably a damning decision in itself from Pioli if he does leave him out, as that gives the impression that he hasn’t been convinced that he’s the right man for the job.
Leao has featured 22 times so far this season, but he has managed to score just two goals and provide two assists. While it appeared as though Pioli was ready to build a partnership up front between him and Ibrahimovic in early January, he played a bit-part role in the last four Serie A games before the lockdown was enforced and the season suspended.
As noted by Football Italia, Pioli was critical of the youngster after the loss to Lazio in November, conceding that he expected more from Leao after coming off the bench to lift the side while he insisted that he ‘has to do more’ and his performance was ‘not up to his standards’.
Milan posted the video below on Twitter last week, a minute’s worth of Leao’s highlights so far this season. It came as no surprise that he didn’t exactly receive an all-round positive response, given his lack of decisiveness when he has been involved.
— AC Milan (@acmilan) June 6, 2020
In his defence, he’s still only 20, he arrived with big expectations and perhaps it will just take him more time to settle and show his potential and true worth.
However, this is potentially now a real test of his character if you put quality and talent aside. We know he’s quick, he can offer a more direct threat and has shown some positive signs, but if Pioli leaves him on the bench on Friday even with no Ibrahimovic at his disposal, Leao has to respond in the right way.
At times, he has arguably lacked the right attitude and approach on the pitch, as noted by Pioli in November. For a young player trying to make his mark and prove himself at this level, that’s the unacceptable part. Inconsistency and dips in form are natural for a player who’s still inexperienced and young.
Whether it’s coming off the bench to turn the tie in our favour or perhaps starting the game if Pioli has a late change of heart, Leao has a big challenge ahead of him in the closing months of the season.
It’s unlikely Milan will quit on him after just one season, albeit they’ve done it in recent times with the likes of Andre Silva and Krzysztof Piatek so perhaps it can’t be ruled out entirely. Nevertheless, he can prevent it from becoming a more prominent question with his form in the next month or so, but it seems his first battle is to convince Pioli that he deserves a starting berth in his side.
Given the circumstances with no Ibra and a lack of options up front, he arguably hasn’t made a particularly positive impression since returning to training.