Rafael Leão held his head in his hands, but it was not a gesture of desperation. The Portuguese striker had just watched Milan team-mate Theo Hernández score the goal that would put them within a point of winning the Scudetto, sealing a 2-0 win over Atalanta. He should have been celebrating but he needed to stop for a moment and try to fathom what he had just seen.
Theo had started from the left corner of Milan’s penalty area moments before. When the ball ran to him after a sliding challenge from Rade Krunic on Jérémie Boga, he claimed it and took off, moving inside to get rid of an opponent, then accelerating to clear away another as he crossed halfway.
Berat Djimsiti came in front from the right but Theo shredded from the left and collided the defender with fellow team-mate Marten de Roon at the edge of their 18-yard penalty area. José Luis Palomino, the last defender, stepped back, a dazzled spectator of a moment unfolding in the history of football. Theo fired back through his body and into the bottom right corner of the net.
It wasn’t, couldn’t be, the decisive goal in this season’s title race, not with Inter still close at hand and waiting to play Cagliari later in the evening. If Milan seal the deal, it will be the climax to be played out every time their triumph will be remembered for decades.
Parallels were immediately drawn with George Weah’s iconic ‘coast to coast’ goal against Verona in 1996. They scored at opposite ends of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, but he and Theo had started their runs from almost identical positions, covering as many meters in more or less the same amount of time. Heck, even their names almost rhyme.
Or maybe comparing Theo to Weah didn’t go far enough. Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan then posted an Instagram story insisting that ‘even Messi didn’t do this’. Hyperbola? Oh, just a little. And who could blame a group that is close to ending Milan’s 11-year drought?
They are 15 games unbeaten in the league, and this is their fifth consecutive win. They were supposed to have a tougher break-in than Inter, with games at Lazio and ‘Fatal’ Verona, and home fixtures against Fiorentina and then that side Atalanta – both chasing their own European qualification .
This weekend’s opponents may have taken a step back from recent seasons, losing Champions League places after three consecutive third places, but they remain dangerous opponents for everyone: the fourth most prolific team of the league. Milan hadn’t beaten them at home for eight years. Stefano Pioli’s first game against them after taking charge of the Rossoneri in 2019 ended in a 5-0 defeat.
On Sunday, Milan initially struggled to navigate their way through Atalanta’s deliberately congested midfield. Instead, in the second half they rounded it, Junior Messias lifting a pass over the top for Leão, who headed it down and raced to slip a side foot finish between the legs of Juan Musso for the first goal of the game.
The game should have been stopped before he ever had a chance to shoot. Milan had taken possession of the ball on a foul, Pierre Kalulu dropping Matteo Pessina from behind. Several players seemed to hesitate, expecting a whistle, but none came and Fikayo Tomori did well to stay alert at the time, passing the ball to Messias to start the move.
Atalanta found their best chance between Milan’s two goals, Duván Zapata missing the target after finding himself in front of his man from a corner. He hasn’t been the same since suffering the first of a series of muscle injuries in December, scoring just once in his last 12 appearances compared to 12 in 19 previously.
He is, however, only the latest in a long line of forwards to be thwarted by a Milan defense that has kept 17 clean sheets this Serie A season, and 11 since the start of the calendar year. Pioli’s team is above all very difficult to break.
Among the many striking stats of this Serie A season is the fact that the league leaders’ top scorer – Leão – has just 11 goals. No one else is in double digits. Milan have found different heroes at different times, from Theo to Sandro Tonali, Olivier Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Swede did not take to the pitch on Sunday but smashed the front window of the team bus as he arrived before kick-off, hitting too hard in recognition of the sea of fans waiting to greet him in San Siro. Asked if this could have been Ibrahimovic’s last chance to play here, Pioli replied ‘I hope not’, leaving the door open for another contract renewal beyond this summer.
He couldn’t afford the Swede, or any other player, on Sunday with a title on the line. Even full-time, Pioli knew the job wasn’t done yet, telling reporters he had shown his players a video of Kobe Bryant in which the five-time NBA champion insisted that a playoff series was not over despite his team leading by two games to nil. .
Inter would not offer them an easy passage. Later in the evening, the defending Serie A champions won 3-1 at Cagliari, pushing the title race to the final weekend. Their manager, Simone Inzaghi, has pointed out that he won a Scudetto under similar circumstances as a player in 2000, when Juventus suffered a 1-0 defeat at Perugia that gave Lazio a 1-0 lead. a single point.
“Sassuolo are a great team,” he observed of Milan’s latest opponents. “We want to play all our chances, in football you can never give up.”
His misfortune is to come up against rivals with the same mindset. “When I left, I thought, ‘I’ll go all the way,'” Theo Hernandez said as he sought to explain his solo stunt. “This is the most important goal of my life.”
One so brilliant that some of his own teammates couldn’t celebrate, getting lost in the moment instead. Leão had his head in his hands on Sunday. Milan have the fate of the Scudetto in their hands as they head into the final weekend.