Rafael Leao has been AC Milan’s most promising player of the season. Since arriving from Lille in the summer, the Portuguese has threatened the opposition with his pace and directness. He has only scored once but he has been a bright spark during gloomy times at San Siro. Despite that, links with Barcelona are a surprise.
A product of the Sporting Lisbon youth academy, Leao joined Lille on a free transfer in the summer of 2018 after he had his Sporting contract terminated- like many others at that time. He impressed for the French club last season, scoring eight times and assisting twice in 24 appearances.
He played up front, flanked by Nicolas Pepe and Jonathan Bamba. At Milan, he has played on the left. Until former boss Marco Giampaolo shifted him upfront for Krzysztof Piatek during the side’s 2-1 win over Genoa. Leao made an instant impact, winning a penalty as soon as he came on.
Playing on the left, Leao has completed 2 dribbles per game this season- the highest for the club so far. He has played 1.4 key passes per game this season too- the second-highest this season at Milan (via Whoscored).
His directness is a vital part of the Rossoneri side and many are expecting him to play a greater role under new manager Stefano Pioli too. Because of those abilities, it is evident why Barca would be looking at the possibility of signing him.
These are not good signs of Ousmane Dembele, who has left many frustrated with his attitude and unprofessional behaviour at the club. The Frenchman was expected to be part of the deal that could have brought Neymar to Barca. While the deal never worked out, it suggests that Barca would be willing to let Dembele leave.
The former Borussia Dortmund man can show world-class talent on his day. But injury issues never help, along with the negative vibes he can exude. He, like Leao, possesses pace that can rip any defence to shreds. Like the Portuguese, Dembele too has completed 2 dribbles per game this season (via Whoscored)
Leao is a different character, in comparison to Dembele. But there have been questions about how his agent and father have dealt with his situation. When his contract at Lille was terminated, Sporting accused his agent and father of acting in an unprofessional manner.
The player was linked with Borussia Dortmund and an image of him being in Dortmund went viral. BVB claimed that no talks had been held, with Leao’s father later claiming that it was a coincidence that they were on holiday in Rhineland.
Leao’s name has never come up in fracas. There have been no claims from anywhere about a lack of ethic or effort. Being a source of light during dark times at Milan is another good sign for Barcelona.
Leao gives the impression of being a complete player around goal, even though Dembele is a better technical outlet than the former Lille man. Having played a striker and because of a better build, Leao is much better aerially.
Last season, Leao won 1.2 aerial duels per game. While Dembele won 0.3 of them. That is another advantage for a club that is still looking for a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez.
But at Barca, Leao would not get regular first-team football that he will get at Milan. Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Suarez is the undoubted first-choice front three and Dembele comes after them in the pecking order.
The way Leao is playing at Milan, he will need regular football to thrive and improve. More so, if Barca plan on signing him as a replacement for the departed Malcom, that won’t suffice at all for Leao. It is a practical decision to stay in Milan even though rejecting Barca can be tough for anyone.