Gone in six seconds: Serie A’s fastest goal keeps Milan out in front

Gone in six seconds: Serie A’s fastest goal keeps Milan out in front

Rafael Leão needed 6.76 seconds to score, and four hours to become a Serie A punchline. His goal for Milan against Sassuolo was the fastest ever in the Italian top flight, and across any of Europe’s top five leagues. When Luis Muriel found the net within a minute of coming on as a substitute in Atalanta’s game later that afternoon, his teammate Matteo Pessina leapt from the bench to chide him: “Who do you think you are? Leão?”

Over in Venice, meanwhile, the phone of Paolo Poggi would not stop buzzing. His strike for Piacenza against Fiorentina (8.9 seconds) had held the Serie A record for 19 years. “It took less than six seconds for that first message to arrive telling me,” he laughed. “But the difference in our game was that we didn’t take the kick-off.”

The two goals could hardly be any more different. Poggi’s was sheer opportunism, crashing the ball past Alex Manninger after Dario Hübner had pounced on a poor touch from Fiorentina’s Christian Amoroso. Leão’s path had been choreographed and rehearsed on the training pitches at Milanello.

From the opening kick-off, Hakan Calhanoglu dribbled forward at speed, drawing three opponents towards him. Leão, at the same time, sprinted from the left wing, angling his run towards the centre of the Sassuolo goal.

Calhanoglu released the ball as their paths crossed, playing it into the space between the Sassuolo right-back Jeremy Toljan and centre-back Marlon Santos. Leão had inside position on the former, while the latter lost a step on the turn. All that remained was for the Portuguese forward to lift a shot over the goalkeeper, Andrea Consigli.

As the ball hit the net, Sassuolo’s defenders looked around, gesturing as though they wanted to protest but could not come up with a good reason. They did in fact have grounds for complaint, as Leão appeared on the replays to have launched his run too soon – crossing halfway before the game actually started. But kick-offs are not listed among the game situations that VAR is permitted to review, and nobody on the pitch appeared even to suspect his infraction.

Milan’s manager, Stefano Pioli, said afterwards that his team had four or five set-plays they can deploy at kick-off. “We’re not brushing our dolls’ hair,” he quipped in response to a question about how specifically his staff had tailored a plan to exploit perceived weaknesses in Sassuolo’s defence. “We prepare, we study our opponents and we look for situations where we can put them in difficulty. Today it went well.”

This would have been a perfect start under any circumstance, but the satisfaction for Pioli ran deeper. At his pre-game press conference, he had faced questions about Leão’s recent poor form, and whether Milan – after two consecutive draws – were starting to feel the weight of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury absence.

“I’m the first to say that Leão’s last two performances lacked the intensity required at this level,” he said at the time. “But before he was injured on international duty, he was giving us great signs of growth. He’s still not at 100%, but now he needs to give that little extra effort mentally.”

What better way to focus the player’s mind than to put him at the centre of a designed play like this? And what better than a first-minute goal to restore confidence to a young team in a moment of adversity? Milan began the day already in first place, but their lead over neighbours Inter was down to a single point, and Juventus had temporarily closed to within the same distance after thrashing Parma 4-0 on Saturday.

Milan had never truly been reliant on Ibrahimovic to win games. Mino Raiola might believe his client is “90% of that team” but the numbers say otherwise, the Rossoneri winning seven and drawing the remaining three of the 10 Serie A matches the Swede has missed since returning to the club. His impact at the club has been transformative on a number of levels, but on the pitch, at least, his teammates have found ways to get by without him.

What is most striking about this Milan team, indeed, is how they have continued to pile up the goals without their most prolific player. Pioli’s side have struck at least twice in each of their past 15 games, dating back to last season. It was Alexis Saelemaekers who extended the run on Sunday, putting the Rossoneri 2-0 up after Calhanoglu had a goal disallowed.

It was a glorious collective effort: Brahim Díaz launching the attack when he shed an opponent on the edge of his own box with a smooth turn and set Theo Hernández running down the left. Sandro Tonali appeared to be in an offside position as the Spaniard knocked the ball forward, but in fact served only as a decoy, stepping away and allowing his teammate to race all the way down to the corner of the six-yard box before squaring to Saelemaekers for an easy tap-in.