STADIO SAN SIRO (Milan): A brilliant display from Rafael Leao helped AC Milan past Lecce, as the Portuguese scored once in each half to seal a 2-0 victory that sees the Rossoneri again leapfrog their city rivals Inter and go level on points with fourth-placed AS Roma, who could still restore their three-point gap over Milan by beating Atalanta on Monday on Matchday 31.
Leao was the real difference between the two sides in a game that the hosts controlled comfortably, except for a first-half scare, but without creating particularly dangerous chances in front of a Giallorossi side that won their last Serie A game in February and whose cushion over third-from-bottom Hellas Verona has been now reduced to two points. Verona claimed a surprise win over Bologna.
AC Milan’s strong start halted by a VAR check
Urged to respond to Inter’s victory at Empoli earlier in the day in order to take fifth place back, and boosted by more than 72,500 fans at the San Siro, Stefano Pioli’s side started on the front foot and tried to take hold of the opponents’ half. Helping, the pink-haired Theo Hernandez floated between the midfield and attacking lines to support the hosts’ early attacks.
The Giallorossi did very little to keep the Rossoneri away from their box in the opening stages and their submissive approach almost cost them dearly when, around the 15-minute mark, Theo broke into the box and appeared to be grounded by Federico Baschirotto, leading referee Daniele Chiffi to award a penalty, only to overturn the decision following a VAR check that showed the defender clearly hitting the ball.
Seemingly distracted by a few frenzied minutes, the hosts went from potentially scoring the opener to surviving a major scare, when Lameck Banda popped up completely unmarked at the far post to meet Valentin Gendrey’s cross, which he incredibly headed against the post.
The break forced by the VAR and Lecce’s subsequent massive chance saw AC Milan lose some momentum, with the visitors feeling able to produce their own threats, especially through Banda, whose speed made him a tricky opponent to deal with.
Leao shines twice
The hosts eventually found their breakthrough with a quick play that caught Lecce’s defence unprepared, as Sandro Tonali took a short corner and received the ball again to pinpoint a cross that Leao headed past Wladimiro Falcone for his 11th Serie A goal of the season.
A less conservative Lecce offered the Rossoneri more gaps to explore in the second half, although Stefano Pioli’s men seemed to settle for long stretches of possession instead, with their inaccuracy in the final third hindering their chance creation.
It was Lecce substitute Gabriel Strefezza to test Mike Maignan’s gloves at the other end instead, and when Leao found himself one-on-one against Falcone from a tight angle shortly after he threw the opportunity away by cheekily trying to chip the ball over the goalkeeper rather than slotting the ball home with the inside of his right boot in his trademark fashion.
However, he took little to make amends as he effortlessly sprinted through Lecce’s half before hitting a left-footed low drive that bounced off the post and into the net to double AC Milan’s lead.
The final minutes were all smooth sailing for the Rossoneri, who crucially returned to winning ways after two consecutive Serie A draws.