Leao-Ibra: Milan New Striker Pair Regenerates Rossoneri

Perhaps Stefano Pioli has found the magic formula. His brand-new attacking couple made of Rafael Leao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic helped Milan return to victory after three games without goals as the Rossoneri made full score in Cagliari on Saturday.

Ibra scored his goal number 57 in red-and-black after Rafael Leao, with a bit of luck, had put Milan in the driving seat with his second goal in Rossonero after the one against Fiorentina.

Pioli’s side played as a team, maybe for the first time since the Parma-born coach sat on the bench, exploiting Samu Castillejo’s verve – the Spaniard being deployed as a side midfielder along with Hakan Calanhoglu in Pioli’s new 4-4-2 formation –  Theo Hernandez’s consistency on the left flank, and Gianluigi Donnarumma’s confidence between the sticks.

With the back-line well-guarded, closing the game was then up to Pioli’s striking pair: Zlatan, who clearly showed he can still hold his own in Serie A despite playing almost from a standing position, and his apparent protégé Rafael Leao. Rumors have it that King Zlatan took a fond for the young Brazilian forward, up to the point of taking him out for lunch to explain him a thing or two about making a difference in the front line.

The news of the day, quite expected indeed, was the benching of Suso and Krzysztof Piatek, once both at the center of Milan’s project but now appearing relegated to the margins.   

The limited-edition white jersey made to celebrate their 100th birthday didn’t help Cagliari on the other hand, as the Sardinian side fell for the fourth time in a row (Lazio, Udinese, Juventus and now Milan), and appeared concerningly inconclusive in the attack. What surprised the most is that the Rossoblu, who had scored 33 goals in 18 games so far, failed to make any shot on target for the full first half and pretty much disappeared from the pitch after Rafael Leao’s opener early in the second.  

In a sold-out Sardegna Area, Rolando Maran confirmed his classic lineup and placed defenders Ragnar Klavan and Fabio Pisacane to mark one-on-one Ibrahimovic and Leao. The trick initially seemed the work, as Ibra’s only spark in the first half was a header in the 30th minute which his fellow countryman Robin Olsen controlled without much difficulty.

Before that, Theo Hernandez had given another sample of his unexpected striking skills, testing the Swedish goalie’s reflexes in the 16th minute in what was Milan’s most dangerous chance for 45 minutes. Cagliari’s only attempts came from a misunderstanding between Donnarumma and his captain Alessio Romagnoli, and then from a lob by midfielder Nahitan Nandez, which Milan’s goalie somehow managed to defuse as he recovered from his bad positioning.    

In the second half, the Rossoneri took only 34 seconds to break the balance. A seemingly-rejuvenated Samu Castillejo surprised the whole Cagliari defensive pack with a long-range cross from the right to serve Rafael Leao in the box. The Brazilian’s shot found a lucky deflection by Fabio Pisacane which left no chance to Olsen. Perhaps not the finest finish for Leao, but a good boost of morale for him and his struggling side.

Cagliari felt the hit and didn’t seem able to react. Ibrahimovic gave them the coup the grace as he swept the ball into the far bottom corner of the net, turning Theo Hernandez’s pass from the left into the first goal of his new Italian adventure. The Swede also had time to score another one, but his beautiful diving header conversion came from an offside position and was duly disallowed.

Rolando Maran reshuffled his cards with a string of changes in the latest minutes, to no avail however. His Cagliari closed their first half of the Campionato in the 6th place and the European qualification spots still in sight. But, compared with a few weeks ago, things are taking a pretty different turn in Sardinia.


January 11, 2020 – Serie A 2019-2020 Round 19

46′ Rafael Leao, 65′ Ibrahimovic

CAGLIARI (4-3-1-2): Olsen; Faragò, Pisacane, Klavan, Pellegrini; Nandez (75′ Ionita), Cigarini, Rog (76′ Castro); Nainggolan; Joao Pedro, Simeone (69′ Cerri) (Rafael, Lykogiannis, Walukiewicz, Birsa, Oliva, Ladinetti) Coach: Maran
MILAN (4-4-2): G. Donnarumma; Calabria (73′ Conti), Musacchio, Romagnoli, Hernandez; Castillejo, Kessiè, Bennacer, Calhanoglu (64′ Bonaventura); Ibrahimovic, Rafael Leao (90′ Rebic) (Reina, A. Donnarumma, Gabbia, Brescianini, Krunic, Paquetà, Suso, Piatek) Coach: Pioli

REFEREE: Mr. Abisso from Palermo
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Pellegrini, Nandez, Cigarini (C), Bennacer (M); Extra Time: 1st Half 0′, 2nd Half 6′