January has so far been a quiet month for Milan – not that the Rossoneri will necessarily complain.

While technical director Paolo Maldini has failed to this point in his pursuit of a new centre-back – Lille's Sven Botman was a target – he has crucially kept together a Milan team who are again contending for the Serie A title.

The side's progress under Stefano Pioli has prompted links between a number of their players and super-rich suitors, with each possible departure having the potential to derail Milan's season.

Indeed, Theo Hernandez's future could so easily have been the subject of a mid-season soap opera, such is the demand for superstar full-backs in the modern game. 

Hernandez certainly falls into that bracket. Just three defenders in Europe's top five leagues – Trent Alexander-Arnold (38), Achraf Hakimi (36) and Robin Gosens (35) – have registered more goal involvements than Hernandez's 30 (tied with Raphael Guerreiro) since he joined Milan in 2019. In 2021-22, the France international's nine (matched by Reece James) are topped only by Alexander-Arnold (12) and Jonathan Clauss (11).

 

Murmurs of a Chelsea bid were inevitable this month with Ben Chilwell out for the season, while Manchester City – playing right-back Joao Cancelo at left-back – and Paris Saint-Germain – never afraid to splash out at any position – have been credited with an interest in the past.

Instead, Hernandez looks to be staying at San Siro.

Hernandez happy at San Siro

Hernandez, whose existing contract expires in 2024, is widely expected to agree an extension, snubbing the prospect of a big move. Of course, the player, who came through Atletico Madrid's academy, has already had one such transfer.

Having impressed on loan at Alaves, Hernandez headed to Real Madrid in 2017 for an unsuccessful stay at the Santiago Bernabeu. In a single season in the Madrid first team, the defender was restricted to 13 league appearances (10 starts) and failed to contribute either a goal or an assist, creating a meagre eight chances.

A return to some sort of form with Real Sociedad was followed by a permanent switch to Milan and at last certainty and a clearly specified role, leading the attack from left-back.

Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (42), Ante Rebic (32) and Hakan Calhanoglu (31) have since registered more Milan goal involvements in Serie A; Calhanoglu (168), now at Inter, alone has created more chances (107).

"At Real Madrid, I lacked the confidence to play more loose and drive forward," Hernandez told The Athletic this week. "But at Milan, I've got it.

"I can link up better with the strikers and forwards. What is it that I like? Attacking and going up the pitch. I play with more freedom to score goals and assist more."

Perfect fit for Pioli's side

While these attacking contributions are no doubt what has caught the attention of Chelsea and Co., Hernandez is unlikely to enjoy that same freedom in another side.

At Milan, the 24-year-old's initial task is often simply to get the team up the pitch and into the final third – something he does exceptionally well; no team-mate since 2019 has carried the ball further (231.7 metres) or progressed further up the field (161.7m) per 90. With the license then to orchestrate the play as he sees fit, Hernandez does not always hug the touchline like other players in his position, preferring instead to come inside and use his close control to beat defenders, taking on opponents with 9.7 per cent of his carries.

 

In the final third, as Alexander-Arnold – perhaps far more akin to what was traditionally expected of an attacking full-back – delivers 5.9 open-play crosses per 90, Hernandez opts for this route just 2.3 times over the same period. In fact, the Milan man takes shots himself (1.5 per 90) more often than he creates chances for others (1.3).

Hernandez has similarities with Gosens (1.9 shots, 1.2 chances created per 90) in this sense, with both posting higher figures for expected goals (Hernandez – 0.17, Gosens – 0.25) than for expected assists (Hernandez – 0.15, Gosens – 0.12). However, unlike Gosens, very much a wing-back at Atalanta, Hernandez is typically playing in a back four.

The signing of a strong left-sided centre-back like Botman – or Diego Carlos of Sevilla, another mooted option – would therefore appear to represent a commitment to Hernandez and his carefree approach.

Hernandez's nine errors leading to shots in the past three seasons have resulted in three goals, as many as from errors by Alexander-Arnold (two), Guerreiro (one), Gosens, Hakimi and Clauss (all zero) combined. Such mistakes would surely be less costly with a reliable colleague providing back-up, allowing the full-back to continue attacking effectively.

The leader from left-back

Although "a complete defender" in the middle – as Pioli describes the blueprint for Milan's ideal signing – would help, Hernandez is determined to play his part in defensive improvement.

"A full-back firstly has to defend and then has to attack," he told The Athletic. "That is what I'm improving on, little by little. I'm young still, I have many years of football left, and I'm improving on that defensive phase that I was missing."

The need for improvement was evident in September's reverse fixture against Juventus, Sunday's visitors, when Hernandez's slack early header in the attacking half allowed the Bianconeri to break and, with the defender unable to recover, score through Alvaro Morata.

Hernandez could still have teed up a winner at the end of that 1-1 draw when a drive through the middle of the pitch found him in position to slide in Pierre Kalulu for a chance the 21-year-old would like to have back.

Indeed, Hernandez is far from the youngest, rawest talent in the Milan squad and has increasingly established himself as a leader since the game in Turin, wearing the captain's armband in the team's most recent league win at Venezia and marking the occasion with two goals.

How he and Milan, stunned by Spezia in midweek, when Hernandez missed a penalty, would love to be celebrating again this weekend. With a contract extension on the horizon, Rossoneri fans soon will be regardless.

Ousmane Dembele's future with Barcelona has been unclear for months.

The 24-year-old has snubbed a fresh contract extension offer at Barca.

On Thursday, it was confirmed the Blaugrana have subsequently put him up for sale in January.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA READY FOR DEMBELE MOVE

Chelsea are ready to make a January move for Barcelona's Dembele, claims The Sun.

France winger Dembele is out of contract at the end of this season and Barca now want him to leave this month.

Chelsea have interest in Dembele, although it is unclear if they want to sign him on loan or permanently.

 

ROUND-UP

- Roma are prepared to offer Jordan Veretout in exchange for Tottenham's Tanguy Ndombele, reports Gianluca Di Marzio. Goal and The Athletic claim that Paris Saint-Germain  are in talks with Spurs and Ndombele over a loan move.

- The Telegraph claims Tottenham are ready to make a January swoop for Milan's Franck Kessie, whose contract expires at the end of this season.

- Sevilla are still keen to sign Manchester United forward Anthony Martial on loan, according to Marca. The Spanish club had an initial offer rejected and could move for Lyon's Moussa Dembele as an alternative.

- Real Betis want to sign Manchester City full-back Oleksandr Zinchenko this month, with the lure of regular football, claims The Sun.

- Crystal Palace have pulled out of the race to sign Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey, reports the Daily Mail. Ramsey has had interest from Newcastle United, Wolves and Burnley.

Luis Suarez's future at Atletico Madrid is unclear with his contract to expire at the end of the season.

Suarez helped Atleti win LaLiga last term with 21 goals.

The Uruguayan joined Atletico from top-flight rivals Barcelona in 2020 on a two-year deal.

TOP STORY – SUAREZ WANTS GERRARD REUNION AT VILLA

Suarez wants a reunion with former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa, reports Gerard Romero.

The Atletico Madrid forward's contract expires at the end of this season and has been sounded out by numerous Brazilian clubs.

Suarez has had offers from Palmeiras, Corinthians and Atletico Mineiro but wants to link up with Gerrard who took over at Villa in January.

 

ROUND-UP

- ESPN claims Paris Saint-Germain have opened talks with Manchester United's Paul Pogba and Milan's Franck Kessie, as part of their effort to convince Kylian Mbappe to stay in the French capital amid interest from Real Madrid.

- Juventus have made an enquiry for Borussia Monchengladbach's Denis Zakaria according to 90min as they prepare for Arthur Melo to join Arsenal .

- Arsenal's bid to sign Fiorentina's Dusan Vlahovic looks to have hit a roadblock with the Serbian only interested in joining Juventus, reports the Mail.

- Milan want to bolster their backline and are interested in a loan deal for Tottenham's Japhet Tanganga, claims Fabrizio Romano.

- Leicester City and Newcastle United may rival Brentford to sign Inter's Christian Eriksen, reports the Times.

Stefano Pioli has revealed the referee apologised after ruling out what should have been a valid Milan goal in Monday's defeat to Spezia.

The Rossoneri slumped to a shock 2-1 loss as Emmanuel Gyasi scored with almost the final kick of a thriller at San Siro.

Title rivals Inter drew 0-0 with Atalanta on Sunday, but Milan failed to claim a win that would have sent them to the Serie A summit.

The hosts dominated the first half and took a deserved lead through Rafael Leao, just after Theo Hernandez had missed a penalty.

Yet their profligacy cost them in the second half when Kevin Agudelo equalised.

 

Milan were then left furious as Junior Messias' fine late effort was struck off due to a premature whistle from referee Marco Serra, who had blown up for a foul on Ante Rebic.

Serra appeared to realise his mistake, though that did nothing to appease Milan, who subsequently hit the bar through Zlatan Ibrahimovic only for Gyasi to snatch a last-gasp winner on the counter.

While Pioli was keen to point out the official's error, he acknowledged Milan did not control the game well enough.

"I tried to calm my players down, but I didn't manage as Spezia's goal proves," he told DAZN.

"We knew it was an injustice, we have ourselves to blame, but we share responsibility with the referee.

"I am sorry to say that. He even apologised, maybe that wasn't even a fault. It's a shame.

"However, we should have scored more goals in the first half. It's a bad night and we must react now."

 

Milan had 25 attempts in total, with eight on target. It was the most shots they have managed in a Serie A defeat since December 2017 against Verona (31).

Leao was a standout performer with four shots and as many key passes, while Ibrahimovic, making his 150th league appearance for the club, had a team-leading eight efforts.

"We could have won the game, somehow we lost," said Pioli, whose side finished the match with an expected goals (xG) value of 2.5.

"We knew we had a good chance, Leao's goal should have given us self-confidence, we failed to seal a win that we strongly wanted, but the season is still long."

Milan remain second, two points behind Inter and one ahead of Napoli in third, with Juventus next up on Sunday.

Milan slumped to a shock 2-1 defeat to Spezia as Emmanuel Gyasi scored with almost the final kick of a thriller at San Siro.

Title rivals Inter drew 0-0 with Atalanta on Sunday, but Milan could not take advantage the following day as Spezia came from behind in incredible fashion.

Rafael Leao put Milan ahead after Theo Hernandez's penalty miss, but Kevin Agudelo levelled midway through the second half.

Milan were furious when Junior Messias' fine late effort was struck off due to a premature whistle from the referee, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic then hitting the crossbar.

And Gyasi had the final say, slotting home in the 96th minute to sensationally earn Spezia's first league win at San Siro.

The futures of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, arguably the two most sought-after players in world football, could be determined by the end of the January transfer window.

While the forwards look set to stay at Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain respectively this month, moves away at the end of the campaign look increasingly likely.

And despite intense competition from fellow heavyweight clubs, Real Madrid are determined to win the race for both players.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID TO PUT ASIDE €350m FOR HAALAND

Madrid had two bids knocked back for Mbappe last year but, according to Marca, they remain in pole position to sign the France international in six months' time.

Landing Haaland could prove to be a little more complicated, though, given he will still have two years to run on his contract at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.

However, the Spanish publication reports that Madrid are willing to spend big on the prolific striker, who is thought to have a €75million release clause in his deal.

On top of triggering that, it is claimed that Los Blancos will have to set aside cash for Haaland's father, agent Mino Raiola and a hefty salary for the player himself, which could total around €350m.

 

ROUND-UP

- Madrid may be considered the frontrunners to sign Mbappe and Haaland, but they already have a back-up plan in place should either of those moves fail to materialise. According to El Nacional, Fiorentina's in-demand Dusan Vlahovic is also on the Spanish giants' radar.

- CalcioMercato reports that Milan have joined the queue to sign Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen. Christensen, who comes out of contract at the end of this season, is being chased by Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

- Newcastle United could beat Manchester United in the race for RB Leipzig's Amadou Haidara, with The Mirror reporting that the newly-rich Magpies are set to make an offer.

- The Everton board got together on Saturday to discuss manager Rafael Benitez's future in the job, according to Sky Sports. Everton have won one of their past 13 league games and lost to bottom club Norwich City 2-1 on Saturday.

- PSG, Bayern and Madrid are among Kalvin Phillips' suitors. El Nacional reports that Leeds United have a battle on their hands fending off interest in the midfielder, who has been capped 19 times by England.

- The Mirror reports that Chelsea are considering a move for Inter's Ivan Perisic. The Blues are in the market for a versatile player who can play at left-back while Ben Chilwell recovers from a long-term injury.

 

Genoa have sacked Andriy Shevchenko only two months after appointing the Milan great as head coach.

The Ukrainian was hired to replace Davide Ballardini on November 7, with his appointment one of the first major decisions made by the club's new ownership group.

Shevchenko had left his role as Ukraine coach in August, having taken his country beyond the group stage of a European Championship for the first time in their history at Euro 2020.

However, Genoa's form has shown no sign of improvement under the former Chelsea and Milan striker.

In nine Serie A games, Shevchenko did not preside over a single victory – they amassed three points and as many goals in that time.

His sole win in charge came via a slender 1-0 success over Salernitana in the Coppa Italia last month.

It was thought Genoa's performance in the 3-1 extra-time defeat to Milan in the Coppa on Thursday might have bought him more time.

But those reports ultimately proved inaccurate, with his former stomping ground San Siro being where his fate was settled.

Stefano Pioli said he was unhappy with his attempts to prepare Milan for Thursday's Coppa Italia clash with Genoa.

The Rossoneri were taken to extra time at San Siro before they eventually progressed to the quarter-finals with a 3-1 victory.

Genoa, with just one Serie A win all season and no Coppa victories over Milan since 1936-37, enjoyed an encouraging first half and took the lead through Leo Ostigard's header 17 minutes in.

It looked as though coach Andriy Shevchenko would pull off a shock against his old side until Olivier Giroud headed in an equaliser with 16 minutes of normal time left.

Milan had by this point taken charge of the contest and deservedly went ahead through Rafael Leao, whose cross looped in off the far post, before Alexis Saelemaekers added a fine third.

While Pioli was pleased with his players' response to falling behind, the Milan coach blamed their ineffective first-half display on his own attempted preparation.

"I'm not satisfied with my work," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"If the whole team doesn't get the approach to the match right, it means the coach was not good at stimulating them from a mental point of view.

"In the first half, we struggled and we played without rhythm. We deserved to go behind. Then, it's true that we reacted well; it's the sign of important growth in terms of character and the mental side of this team.

"I'm disappointed because I thought I prepared the team well. I didn't succeed there."

Milan's poor first half was compounded when defender Fikayo Tomori limped off, and Pioli will now anxiously await further medical checks.

"He felt something strange in his knee," he said. "We're waiting a few days for some more diagnoses, but we hope to have all those on Monday. We have quite a limited group in terms of numbers."

Leao, who has been directly involved in four goals in his first three games of 2021, was delighted to inspire another turnaround – even if his goal was unintentional.

The Portugal international admitted: "I wanted to cross because we have someone so good at heading [Giroud] with Ibra [Zlatan Ibrahimovic], and when I can't shoot, I try to cross.

"I try to give my best; today, I did so. We won and I scored."

Milan struck twice in extra time as they came from behind to defeat Genoa 3-1 and advance to the Coppa Italia quarter-finals.

Leo Ostigard's first-half header gave the visitors the lead on Andriy Shevchenko's return to San Siro.

However, Milan's persistence after the break paid dividends as Oliver Giroud nodded home an equaliser with 16 minutes remaining, and substitutes Rafael Leao and Alexis Saelemaekers completed the turnaround in the additional half-hour to send Stefano Pioli's side through.

Genoa had lost each of their 13 previous matches at this stage of the Coppa Italia, last reaching the quarter-finals in 1991-92.

Nevertheless, the visitors took the lead in the 17th minute as Ostigard rose to head home Manolo Portanova's corner.

Milan then lost Fikayo Tomori to injury midway through the first half, the former Chelsea centre-back limping off to be replaced by Alessandro Florenzi.

Things almost got worse for the hosts before the break when Portanova squandered a great opportunity by shooting wide from inside the six-yard box.

The Rossoneri had never been beaten by Genoa on home soil in this competition and they turned up the pressure after the restart, enjoying well over 70 per cent of the possession.

They were finally rewarded in the 74th minute as Giroud brilliantly headed past Adrian Semper from Theo Hernandez's inviting cross.

It continued to be one-way traffic in extra time, Leao drawing a smart save out of Semper, while Sandro Tonali's vicious long-range drive was inches wide of the target.

But Genoa's resistance was finally broken by Leao in the 102nd minute – albeit in fortunate circumstances – as the Portugal international's attempted cross looped over Semper and in off the far post.

Saelemaekers then sealed the deal five minutes after the restart, turning home from Hernandez's square ball.

Stefano Pioli hailed the united front that Milan displayed in the 3-0 win over Venezia as he marked 400 games as a Serie A head coach.

The former Lazio, Inter and Fiorentina boss saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic give Milan a second-minute lead, before Theo Hernandez's second-half double wrapped up the points.

Pioli became just the eighth head coach in Serie A, in the three-points-for-a-win era, to reach take charge of 400 matches, and said he was only made aware of the landmark by Milan's communications boss.

Victory at Venezia nudged Milan ahead of Inter at the top of the table, ahead of the Nerazzurri's clash with Lazio later on Sunday, as Pioli's men continue to show last season's title challenge was no flash in the pan.

"I believe that this should be the year of confirmation," said Pioli. "But there is still an important step between being competitive and winning.

"Against Venezia it was a very delicate match, easy only on the face of it, and we were good at making it simpler than it could have been."

Quoted by Sky Italia, Pioli said: "We played with the right approach and the right determination, we played as a team.

"We have more awareness of the past, born from all the experiences we have been having. Many young players are becoming mature, we are still a young team but we are more ready mentally."

Milan were firmly in the Scudetto hunt midway through last season but were overtaken by a fast-finishing Inter.

It would help to have a fully fit Ibrahimovic on hand throughout the next four months. His contributions dried up over the closing stages of last season, with just one goal in his final eight Serie A games after a breakneck start, yet at the age of 40 he is playing a big role this term.

Since his return to Milan midway through the 2019-20 season, Ibrahimovic has scored 22 goals in 25 Serie A away games. The Swedish striker's opener at Venezia means he has scored in six consecutive league matches away from San Siro, the second time he has achieved that during this spell with the club.

It also gave him a share of a European top-five league 21st-century record, equalling Cristiano Ronaldo's feat of scoring against 80 different clubs across the continent's elite leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1).

Ibrahimovic and Milan will be limited to domestic duty for the rest of the season after finishing bottom of their Champions League group.

Pioli might find that helps Milan in the long run, even though he remains frustrated by his team's performance in that competition.

He said: "Now it could be an advantageous situation to have weeks free from European commitments, but we are not satisfied to no longer be in the Champions League."

Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao played crucial roles as Milan comfortably beat 10-man Venezia 3-0 on Sunday to return to the summit of Serie A.

Stefano Pioli's men never looked in danger of dropping points at Stadio Pierluigi Penzo and were good value for a third straight Serie A victory.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – teed up by Leao – got the ball rolling inside two minutes as he equalled Cristiano Ronaldo's record of scoring against 80 different teams in Europe's top five leagues this century.

Leao released Hernandez to make it 2-0 early in the second half, with the French defender wrapping the win up soon after with a penalty – which resulted in Michael Svoboda's dismissal – for his third goal of the season against Venezia.

Milan swiftly took charge as the lively Leao raced into the left side of the box and played the ball right across the face of goal for Ibrahimovic to tap in.

Further chances arrived for Milan, with Leao, Hernandez and Alessandro Florenzi forcing Sergio Romero into saves, though there was little the Venezia goalkeeper could do when it came to the visitors scoring their second.

Leao was involved again, feeding Hernandez's run in behind the defence and the left-back smashed past the helpless Romero.

Hernandez put the game beyond Venezia just before the hour, expertly picking out the top-right corner from 12 yards after Michael Svoboda handled – seemingly accidentally – on the line, earning himself a red card.

It sealed a routine win for Milan, with Pioli marking his 400th Serie A match as a coach in style. He is the eighth manager to reach the milestone in the competition.

 

What does it mean? Milan keep pressure on Inter

This was very much a case of Milan getting the job done with minimal fuss – they were very comfortable throughout and impressed despite being without numerous important players.

As such, they open up a two-point lead at the top of the table. Of course, Inter – who face Lazio later on Sunday – have two games in hand, but there is no denying Milan's position is a nice one to be in.

There is no guarantee Inter will win their two bonus games. Even if they do, a four-point deficit is by no means impossible to claw back.

Hernandez leads from the back

Several Milan players impressed but Hernandez was the standout. He got forward so often from left-back that his five shots ended up being more than anyone else – similarly, his expected goals (1.86), shots on target and big chances (both three) were highs for the match, while only Leao (seven) and Ibrahimovic (six) had more than Hernandez's four touches in the box.

Add to that his two key passes (bettered by just Leao), and it shows him in a very good light indeed.

A difficult day for Svoboda

It was a strange game for Svoboda. One moment he would show great composure, cleverly spinning away from Ibrahimovic, but then the next he would do something clumsy.

While the red card may have been slightly harsh, as the ball seemed to hit his thigh first, it was his error – passing the ball to Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box – that led to the situation anyway.

What's next?

Milan are in Coppa Italia action on Wednesday as they host Genoa, before then welcoming Spezia to San Siro in Serie A four days later. Venezia continue their fight against relegation in a week's time at home to Empoli after visiting Atalanta in the cup in midweek.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has matched a European top-five league 21st-century record, set by Cristiano Ronaldo last month, after scoring for Milan against Venezia.

The veteran forward tucked in from close range inside two minutes at Stadio Pierluigi Penzo on Sunday, bringing up his eighth Serie A goal of the season and his first of 2022.

It means Ibrahimovic has now found the net against 80 different clubs across Europe's big five leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1).

Since 2000, the only other player to have achieved that feat is Ronaldo, who reached the milestone with a goal in Manchester United's 3-1 win over Burnley at Old Trafford on December 30.

Ibrahimovic has now also scored in every calendar year since 1999, when he made his debut for Malmo in Sweden.

Milan director Paolo Maldini is eager to learn from past mistakes by tying down Theo Hernandez, Rafael Leao and Ismael Bennacer to new deals.

The trio, who have been regulars for Stefano Pioli's Scudetto-chasing side this term, are under contract at San Siro until the end of the 2023-24 campaign.

However, Milan have learned the hard way about the risks associated with allowing players to run down their contracts in recent times.

Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu departed on free transfers ahead of this season, with the latter joining Milan's fierce rivals Inter.

The Rossoneri also risk losing Franck Kessie without receiving a fee at the end of the campaign, but Maldini is hopeful that will soon be a thing of the past.

"It's not always easy to reach an agreement with players, as we have seen with Donnarumma, Kessie and Calhanoglu " Maldini told reporters on Saturday. 

"But talks are well underway with Theo, as they are with Ismael, and we are talking to Rafa. The intention is to renew with all three soon."

 

Bennacer has featured in 24 of Milan's 26 matches this season, while Hernandez and Leao have been used 21 and 20 times respectively in all competitions.

Leao has five goals and one assist in Serie A this term and ranks third in the division for both dribbles attempted (69) and dribbles completed (37).

Hernandez leads the way for assists among defenders in the Italian top flight this season with five, meanwhile, and Bennacer ranks fifth for successful passes per 90 minutes (66.41) among players to have started at least seven times.

Maldini, speaking at the Associazione Italiana Milan Clubs event, added: "These are all young players and we naturally believe they can continue to offer Milan a great deal."

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli has compared Rafael Leao to a young Thierry Henry following his impressive 26-minute cameo against Roma, insisting the sky is the limit for the forward.

After a month on the sidelines with a thigh injury, the Portugal international returned as a substitute during Milan’s 3-1 win at San Siro.

The 22-year-old wasted no time in making a telling impact; demonstrating tremendous pace to break away from the visiting defence and score the third goal to wrap up the points.

Leao also earned a penalty for the hosts in the dying moments following another blistering run, although Zlatan Ibrahimovic failed to convert from the spot.

The former Lille forward has now netted five goals in Serie A this season, with only Ibrahimovic (seven) doing so more often for the Rossoneri.

He has also attempted 69 dribbles in the Italian top-flight this term; a tally only bettered by Nicolo Zaniolo (78) and Felipe Anderson (77).

His style of play has drawn comparisons from his coach with former Juventus forward Henry, who won the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League and a further five domestic titles during a glittering career. 

"Leao reminds me so much of Henry at the beginning of his career, when he started from the left," Pioli said.

"He has the talent to get to the top of the world, but talent alone is not enough.

"He's getting close to 100 per cent, he still can't be [fully fit] and will need minutes. 

"He has to work with a lot of ambition; he can get to be a really strong player on the European and world scene."

Roma boss Jose Mourinho raged at the performance of his side and the officials after a 3-1 loss to Milan at San Siro, before revealing he turned down the opportunity to manage the Rossoneri in 2019.

Roma were 2-0 down inside a dismal opening 15 minutes, while a shambolic end to the match saw their defenders Rick Karsdorp and Gianluca Mancini sent off.

Mourinho, while furious at the nature of Roma's collapse, also sought to apportion blame to the officials, who awarded Milan two penalties. The first was scored by Olivier Giroud, while the latter saw Rui Patricio save from substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

"The quality of the performance was not good," Mourinho said. "We gave away the ball so easily, our performance level was so low, but we were still in the game [until Karsdorp's dismissal].

"But if we talk about our errors then we also need to talk about the referee and VAR. I have not seen a single image where you can clearly see that the one [penalty] given to Milan in the first half was a penalty. I cannot see it. 

"You can see that Tammy [Abraham] makes a movement with his arm, but you can't see any sort of clear contact with the ball.

"[Gianluca] Aureliano [the VAR official] was at home, but clearly he wanted to be here, given that he was the one that stopped the action."

Mourinho was left even more frustrated when Nicolo Zaniolo and Roger Ibanez saw their own second-half penalty appeals denied.

"We just want consistency in the decisions," he added. "As I said, we played poorly, but in terms of the refereeing, we always seem to be the unlucky ones."

The former Inter coach then revealed he turned down the opportunity to manage the Rossoneri in 2019, before his ill-fated tenure at Tottenham.

"Three years ago, Milan wanted me, and I said 'no'," Mourinho claimed, before calling attention to the less-than-welcoming reception he was given by Milan's supporters. "After what happened I am doubly happy with my decision," he added. "They came, but I said, 'go home, I'm not coming'."

Mourinho has now won just four of his nine career clashes with Milan, losing both league fixtures this season, and his Giallorossi side now trail their conquerors by 13 points. 

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