NAPLES, Italy (AP) — Rafael Leão isn’t quite ready to relinquish his slalom title to Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
It was the Portuguese winger — not the Georgian dribbling wonder — who was more successful at weaving his way around defenders in their three-week showdown, as Leão carried AC Milan past Napoli and “Kvara” into the Champions League semifinals after also helping rout the runaway Serie A leader 4-0 in the Italian league.
“We’re enjoying everything about Leão,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli said after a 1-1 draw in the second leg on Tuesday enabled the Rossoneri to advance on 2-1 aggregate.
“Today we asked him to help out more defensively and he did it. Rafa is becoming a champion and that’s what he’ll become. It’s up to him, because for someone with that much talent and skill, both technically and physically, it’s just a matter of how much effort he puts in.”
The decisive goal of the Champions League series came when Leão took the ball from Milan’s own half and slalomed his way through Napoli’s defense before unselfishly crossing for Olivier Giroud to score into an empty net after pulling the goalkeeper out of position.
First, Leão burst past Tanguy Ndombele, then he cut inside to evade Napoli captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo and muscled center back Amir Rrahmani to the ground before finding Giroud.
It was a 70-yard run reminiscent of how Diego Maradona used to play — in the stadium now named for the Napoli and Argentina great.
“I always try to take opponents on and run at them. I know I can make the difference like that,” Leão said. “If I’m unable to score a goal, I seek out my teammates. So when I got past (three) defenders, I saw Giroud and I knew he could finish it off.”
Even though he was the one who scored, Giroud playfully acted as if he were shining Leão’s boot during their goal celebration.
“Rafa did everything,” Giroud acknowledged.
Leão also drew a foul that led to a penalty kick that Giroud had saved by Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret in the first half.
Meanwhile, “Kvara” had a late penalty kick saved by Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan and couldn’t quite find a way by Milan’s defenders despite his mesmerizing moves with the ball.
Leão was voted Serie A MVP last season when he helped Milan end an 11-year title drought in the Italian league. But he seemed bothered for stretches earlier this season amid extensive contract extension talks that still have not been concluded. His contract expires after next season.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Leão said. “I did well in Serie A last season and I wanted to show what I could do well in the Champions League, too. I think I’m doing that.”
Leão also scored twice in Milan’s 4-0 win at Napoli at the start of the month and was involved in Ismaël Bennacer’s goal in Milan’s 1-0 win in the first leg.
The performances were reminders of when Leão set up all three goals as Milan won 3-0 at Sassuolo last May to clinch the Serie A “scudetto” (championship).
So it’s no wonder Leão is being valued at 80 million euros on the transfer market, and why the contract discussions with Milan sporting director Paolo Maldini have dragged on.
With the extra millions in UEFA prize money that come with reaching the semifinals, making Leão Milan’s highest paid player with a salary of about 7 million euros ($7.7 million) per season now seems more likely.
Leão is just 23, as is Milan playmaker Brahim Diaz, who is developing quite a feeling for playing with the Portugal winger.
Milan also needs to decide if it can afford the 25 million euro ($27.5 million) price tag that Real Madrid has set for the Rossoneri to purchase Diaz’s full rights after three seasons on loan from the Spanish power.
For now, the contract decisions can wait.
“Like all of the players at this club, we’re dreaming of winning the Champions League,” Leão said. “We’re so close.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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