Date: 31st October 2020 at 3:35pm
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When AC Milan left the hallowed turf of Celtic Park after an impressive opening night victory in the Europa League it was their back line that took the plaudits for their heroic performance. That same defensive unit, with the exception of Davide Calabria replacing Theo Hernandez, were equally as solid on Thursday evening as the Rossoneri ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against Sparta Prague, but this time it was a front men that made the biggest impression.

Stefano Pioli’s men dominated the contest from start to finish and proceedings took on the feel of a training session for large periods as they passed the ball about at will, leaving Sparta to chase shadows. Even when the visitors were allowed a brief period on the ball they were forced to play in reverse as Milan hassled and harried them into a series of mistakes.

However, despite controlling the game with ease the Rossoneri struggled to create much in the way of clear cut opportunities in the opening 45 minutes, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s lack of pace seeming to hamper their efforts.

In stark contrast the arrival of Rafael Leao, who replaced Ibrahimovic at half time, saw Pioli’s team offer a completely different threat as his speed and darting runs caused the Sparta back line constant problems.

Ibrahimovic was by no means a lame duck during his time on the field as he showed his trademark power and presence in patches, but on the night it was Leao that made all the difference.

With the Rossoneri having started the season in ominous fashion the emergence of the 21-year-old as a viable attacking threat only makes them a more daunting prospect for other teams. There is no doubt that Ibrahimovic is still Pioli’s main man, but every player has their off days and the ability to replace him with such a dynamic young talent on such occasions makes Milan real contenders in every competition.

A Game For Pace Not Power

It is no secret that Ibrahimovic is now in the twilight years of his glittering career and, despite still possessing physical strength that most mere mortals can only dream of, his once ample pace has significantly diminished.

That lack of speed hampered the Rossoneri in the first half as the former Sweden international found himself arriving to late for key balls on several occasions and out of position during fast paced attacks. With Sparta’s robust back line happy to sit back and soak up pressure his usual bulldozer approach was less effective and not what Milan needed.

Zlatan Is Still The Main Man 

Despite not being Ibrahimovic’s finest performance he still showed fleeting glimpses of  the qualities that make him one of Serie A’s best strikers.

He was dominant in the air from set pieces, his presence alone enough to make the visitor’s defence look nervous, and it was his well placed pass that set up Brahim Diaz for the Rossoneri’s opener. But the 39-year-old’s most telling contribution came midway through the opening stanza when his perfectly timed run caused panic in the Sparta back four and led to him being awarded a penalty, although he crashed the spot kick off the bar.

It may not have been his best performance in a Milan shirt, but it is clear to see that his tactical awareness still makes him a daunting prospect for any opposition.

Immediate Impact

There would have been a few raised eyebrows when Pioli replaced Ibrahimovic with Leao at half time, but the young striker made an immediate positive impact on proceedings for the Rossoneri.

His pace had the Sparta defence back pedalling on an almost constant basis as he darted in and out of the space in behind them with an eye for a clear opportunity on goal. That opportunity would eventually come less than a quarter of an hour into the second half when his pace took him clear of his marker and he tapped home Diogo Dalot’s perfect low cross.

Still A Diamond In The Rough

Despite his fantastic performance Leao is by no means the finished article for Milan and will require plenty of work before he can be seen as a true successor to Ibrahimovic.

Although his pace caused the static back line of Sparta problems it will be less effective against more active and tactically astute back lines unless it used in a more thoughtful manner. It is difficult to criticise his willingness to make runs, but on occasion those runs were aimless and took him out of the contest rather than make him a threat.

He will have to learn the art of being more tactically aware if he is to make an impression against tougher opposition, but there is no place better to learn that than under the wing of Ibrahimovic.