Manchester United transfer target Rafael Leao in action for AC Milan
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Key AC Milan star discusses future ahead of Europa League clash

Portuguese national team forward and poster boy of AC Milan Rafael Leao put pen to paper to sign a new contract with the Milan-based outfit last summer.

The new contract was agreed to run until 2028 and was finalised after several months of negotiations with the Rossoneri hierarchy, ending speculation over potential transfers to Paris Saint-Germain or the Premier League.

Leao, extending his stay at the San Siro, said that he wanted to stay for at least one more year among the Milan faithful.

Speaking to Sky Italia, he commented “The directors knew I wanted to stay at Milan for at least one more year for the project and to show my worth. I knew I had to wait, it was just a bureaucratic issue.”

Leao recently released an autobiography tagged “Smile” detailing his personal life, football journey, and time in Italy. He discussed his key role in AC Milan’s title success in 2021/22, when the Italians ended a nine-year wait for the Scudetto under Stefano Pioli.

Leao, who scored 11 league goals, was named Serie A Player of the Year for his performances but admitted it was not all plain sailing under Pioli.

“It was a little bit strange initially. I am a person who likes to hear things straight. If you talk to me for 30 minutes, I won’t listen,” he wrote in the book.

“His approach was aggressive, and I was quite chilled. He understood and he changed. He would often call me to ask about my family, my playing style, and if I needed anything.

“Our rapport changed then, and we became almost like father and son. When I go on the pitch, I feel responsible for repaying his trust. He deserves the best. He helped me become a better man and gave me more responsibility. He doesn’t speak much, but he says the right things.”

Rafael Leao: The 2023/24 anomaly

Despite his off-the-field accolades, the new “King of Milan” – following Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s retirement – has had a tough season. Leao has looked short of the explosive form he has shown across the last two campaigns, scoring just five times in Serie A.

His dip in form has hampered AC Milan’s title charge this campaign. The Rossoneri currently sit second, though are 14 points adrift of runaway leaders and neighbours Inter Milan.

Leao’s form attracted unwanted media attention as he went almost five months without a league goal, before breaking his drought against Atalanta in late February.

King of Milan, Zlatan’s influence

Expected to lead the team with stellar performances in the absence of former favourite Ibrahimovic, Leao was handed the iconic number ten shirt, but things have not quite worked out as planend so far.

Ibrahimovic’s move into the Milan hierarchy has at least provided a figure of guidance and Leao has said the Swede continues to push him to improve. On his influence, Leao said: “He (Ibrahimovic) is someone who knows our characteristics well. He has been a footballer, his mentality is very important and helps us a lot.”

The 24-year-old also said he does not feel added pressure after changing to the number ten shirt.

“It is a different jersey, the jersey of players who bring something different to the pitch. I chose it because it’s an important jersey and I felt like an important player.”

AC Milan: 2023/24 season

Milan have struggled to hit the highs of their 2021/22 campaign across the last two seasons, ending the Serie A season in fourth last term. Though improved in terms of position in 2023/24, Pioli’s team are a distance second in the title race.

In Europe, Milan were drawn in the UEFA Champions League’s ‘Group of Death’ alongside Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle and suffered a group-stage exit. The Rossoneri earned the consolation prize of Europa League football and Leao scored in both legs of the club’s play-off round tie with Rennes.

Milan’s 5-3 win on aggregate set up a Round of 16 showdown with Slavia Prague, who were thrashed 7-3 over two legs. Leao continued his goalscoring form with another in the second leg in the Czech Republic.

AC Milan: What next in the Europa League?

The draw for the Europa League’s quarter-finals has delivered an all-Italian cracker. Milan will face off against divisional rivals Roma in the last eight, with the capital club having reached the final of this competition last season.

Milan will enter the contest in good form having won four consecutive league games, ahead of Saturday’s clash at home to Lecce. The Rossoneri also hold the upper hand in the league meetings this season, beating Roma home and away, and as expected, AC Milan tickets are in high demand ahead of these fixtures.

Despite being crowned seven-time winners of the Champions League during an illustrious European history, Milan have never before won the UEFA Cup/Europa League. They are aiming to become the first Italian side to lift the trophy since Parma in 1998/99.

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See more – Defensive Rocks: Paolo Maldini – Milan’s Il Capitano

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