It most effective took Portugal’s forward Rafael Leao three mins after coming off the substitutes’ bench to offer up the sort of defining motion he’s carried out time and again for AC Milan over current seasons. The game ended 3-2 in favour of Portugal against Ghana.
With Portugal 2-1 up and Ghana pushing ahead on the lookout for the equaliser, the 23-yr-old appeared at the left wing to slot home a Bruno Fernandes pass inside the 80th minute — well struck among defenders into the a ways nook together with his right foot after he had unfolded his body.
Briefly appearing against Ghana, Leap marked only his 12th senior cap for Portugal, in addition to his first goal for his country, Leao’s growing reputation has largely been built at membership level.
Seen as an exquisite talent, he is considered one of the top possibilities in the teens ranks at Sporting CP, which is some approval for this kind of prestigious academy gadget that has produced the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma.
However, after scoring goals in five games for the senior side, Leao became one in every of a number of players attacked by supporters at wearing’s training grounds. As a end result, he joined lots of his teammates by terminating his contract in the summer season of 2018 and signed for Lille on unfastened transfer.
Sporting claimed they were due his €45m release clause and took the player and the French club to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where they were eventually awarded €16.5m, but an appeal is ongoing.
Leao then joined AC Milan in 2019 for €35m and it was under coach Stefano Pioli’s guidance that he added the tactical discipline, maturity and overall consistency to make the step up from an occasional impact player to a full-fledged Serie A star.
Though signed as a centre-forward, Pioli took a slightly different view on the attacker — whose technical profile makes him an option all across the front line — by shifting him onto the left side.
With his startling pace, ability to leave defenders for dead with a sudden burst of speed, and sharp dribbling skills, Leao was given a chance to thrive in wide areas rather than in the crowded middle where his undeveloped hold-up play would be exposed.
And while his impact wasn’t immediate after the switch — he still had to deal with periods of adverse form, the odd night of excessive confidence in own ability and lack of end product — the Portuguese repaid his coach by chipping in with 11 goals and 10 assists in 35 Serie A games during last season’s Scudetto-winning campaign.
While high-scoring forwards or wingers are no rarity in the modern game, it’s Leao’s blend of abilities that gives him an extra edge. In addition to exceptional speed and tremendous body strength, athleticism and coordination — which allows for rapid turns and makes him hard to knock off balance — his ball control is also of a high standard.
Rafael Leao can beat a marker in either direction through quick footwork, stepovers or body feints, while his off-the-ball running is carried out with conviction to take advantage of space in behind the defence.
Much like the effort against Ghana, the majority of Leao’s goals tend to come from cutting inside from the left — either by simply outpacing the full-back or exploiting the space between right-back and centre-back before curling the ball into the opposite corner in a Thierry Henry-esque manner.
A powerful shot allows him to test the goalkeeper from distance (45% of his efforts ended up on target last season) and he can also find the net with his left foot.
Amid all his individual potential, Leao’s collective contribution additionally deserves a point out. If his running with the ball doesn’t bring about a reduce-lower back for the primary striker or a deep jogging midfielder (or maybe a rectangular pass to the opposite ahead) the manner he stretches opposing defences generates area someplace else and he regularly ties up multiple opposing defender. His defending contribution continues enhancing. This season alone, he has recovered possession 1.5 instances consistent with each game.
Ronaldo is a hard act to comply with for Portugal, Leao does offer some of the same attributes sported by the 37-year-old legend in his prime and, thanks to his rapid development over the past 18 months, he is arguably the most-coveted attacking player among the elite clubs in world football.
Paris Saint-Germain are reported to be long-standing admirers — Luis Campos, their new sporting director, was responsible for taking him to Lille in 2018 — while Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United are also frequently mentioned as keen suitors of the forward, who reportedly has a €150m release clause.
With his contract expiring in 2024, Milan’s sporting director Paolo Maldini recently revealed that the club had set a target of wrapping up the extension of their young star’s contract in time for the World Cup.
However, in failing to do so the Italian side are now faced with the delicate predicament of having to listen to potential offers in January or ending up negotiating with their backs to the wall next summer knowing, he could leave for nothing 12 months later.
Leao has already impressed in his brief cameo in Qatar and, regardless of what follows, the exhilarating forward will remain a feature on the scouting shortlists of the powerhouses of European football for years to come.