Rafael Leao: Everything to Know About the Rumored Chelsea Target

While Chelsea may be under new ownership these days, one fundamental soccer truth remains. The London club has plenty of money and is willing to reach into its metaphorical wallet in pursuit of silverware. The transfer window may currently be closed, but that hasn’t stopped rumors from swirling, linking the Blues to some of Europe’s top attacking talent. One of those names is Rafael Leao.

Thanks to some fortuitous ping-pong balls, Chelsea supporters have two Champions League chances to see the Portuguese winger up close and personal. But maybe you can’t watch those matches, or perhaps you’d just like to take things a bit further than a superficial on-screen graphic.

Whatever the case may be, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about Leao.

Who even is Rafael Leao?

AC Milan forward Rafael Leao dribbles the ball.
Rafael Leao dribbles the ball for AC Milan. | Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Although he might not be a household name just yet, Rafael Leao is sitting on the cusp of stardom.

A 23-year-old Portuguese international, the forward cut his teeth at Sporting. He left the club under bizarre circumstances — we’ll talk a bit more about those later — and moved to Lille in France. He spent one season there, playing mostly as a striker, before packing his bags again and heading to AC Milan.

While it took the attacker some time to find his feet, Leao exploded during the 2021-22 campaign. Playing as a left winger, he scored 11 goals and assisted 10 more, helping the Rossoneri win the Serie A title.

As you might expect, a young player having that sort of impact is always going to get attention. That’s certainly been the case with Leao.

How does Leao play?

At the risk of breaking out all the cliches, Leao is largely what you’d think of when you imagine an inverted winger. He plays on the left-hand side of a front three, cutting into the box to take right-footed shots, but there are some quirks worth flagging. The forward can still drive to the touchline and use his left foot, keeping defenders honest, and does find himself in central positions during transition, where he can make use of the skills he honed as a central striker.

While the Portuguese frequently beats defenders with his pace and dribbling, it is worth noting that he’s not a tiny speedster. Leao clocks in at 6-foot-2, which, again, makes it easy to flashback to his days as a striker.

The young attacker’s positional role model is Kylian Mbappe, and despite their different body types, you can certainly see the similarities.

What are those around soccer saying about Leao?

As you might expect, there’s been plenty of praise for Rafael Leao. Just consider these examples noted in James Horncastle’s October 5 Athletic story about the forward:

  • “Leao reminds me a lot of the early Thierry Henry, who started wide then came inside.” – AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli
  • “You can see he has everything. He’s fast, he’s strong, he can dribble, he can head the ball, he’s tall. He’s got everything. He’s definitely been our difference-maker and is deservedly player of the season for Serie A.” – AC Milan defender Fikayo Tomori

Beyond that, Leao has been compared to Mbappe, which seems to date back to his time in France (h/t BBC) and, according to a youth coach at Sporting, he was better than Cristiano Ronaldo at the same point in his development (h/t Goal).

Can things get hyperbolic, especially when talking about a rising star? Of course, but that’s a lot of serious praise.

So, where does Chelsea enter the picture?

When a young player starts making waves, the European big boys are going to start snooping around. One of those is Chelsea, who haven’t had a problem spending money under Todd Boehly.

The Blues have reportedly hammered out a pre-contract deal for Christopher Nkunku and could be interested in adding Leao to the attack. As Horncastle noted in his piece, the Premier League club floated some informal offers Milan’s way during the summer 2022 transfer window. None of those, however, met the Italian giant’s expectations.

Given those links and the fact that Chelsea’s attack has sputtered this season, it’s reasonable to assume Boehly is still interested. With that being said, though, it doesn’t seem like anything is imminent, especially given Milan’s presumed asking price.

So, how much money will it take to buy Rafael Leao?

In soccer, like in many other places, money makes the world go round. And while AC Milan can be persuaded to sell Rafael Leao, he won’t come cheaply. Let Horncastle explain:

Leao’s role model in his position, Kylian Mbappe, went for €180million and while he isn’t on the same otherworldly level as the PSG striker, his value will be benchmarked against the going rate for a Portuguese craque like Joao Felix ( €120m), a Serie A MVP like Romelu Lukaku (€115m), or the priciest wide forwards from the Barcelona banter era: Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho, all of whom fetched similar figures, albeit in pre-pandemic times.

James Horncastle, The Athletic

Converted to USD, that means Chelsea would be paying roughly $117 million for the forward, at least as of October 11’s going rates.

So that asking price means Leao won’t be leaving Milan anytime soon, right?

Maybe, but nothing is 100% settled.

While Milan are asking for a high price, there is one looming factor that could complicate things. Leao’s contract expires in 2024. They’d obviously like to hammer out an extension, but that could be easier said than done.

As Horncastle notes in his piece, the Italian club sticks to a strict wage structure and hasn’t deviated from that in the past, even if it meant letting the likes of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Franck Kessie leave on free transfers. It’s possible that history will repeat itself, leaving Leao to be sold in order to bring in some cash or simply leave for free.

The finances are also a bit complicated by the way the forward left Portugal. Without explaining the entire scenario and the legal fallout, Leao broke his contract and left Sporting after the club’s ultras attacked the training ground. The Lisbon Court of Appeals, however, ruled he’s responsible for paying €16.5million back to his old club. While that’s a manageable sum for a professional athlete, it still adds another wrinkle to any talks of money.

With all of that being said, though, Europe’s top clubs are waiting in the wings. Should Leao leave Milan, whether on a paid transfer or a free transfer, he’ll be a wanted man.

At this point in time, football fans around the world are in a similar boat. Rafael Leao is exciting and worth the watch, but be warned. Once you see him, it might be tough to avoid imagining what he could do for your favorite club.