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AC Milan

It is perhaps understandable that there is such adulation for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the AC Milan squad. For many of the young core, the greatness of the Swedish striker is all they have ever known. Take Rafael Leao, born June 10, 1999. Three months later, Ibrahimovic was making his competitive debut with Malmo.

As he was first learning the sport, Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo and Thierry Henry were his touchstones -- the players he grew up dreaming of replicating. To share the pitch with one of his heroes is an experience Leao, 21, could scarcely have imagined growing up in Almada, Portugal.

"I was playing with him on the PS4," Leao tells CBS Sports, "then I moved to Milan and I'm playing with him, training with him in real life. Every day with him is an opportunity to improve, I'm very proud and I'm trying to listen and getting better every day with him.

"Outside the game he plays, he laughs. Inside the pitch, he's different. He's rude, he doesn't play. When you have him on the pitch, you can beat any team, it doesn't matter who they are.

"He's an icon. When you have him in the team, you can achieve great things."

Great things are certainly what Milan are achieving with Ibrahimovic at the helm. It would appear that a club that has languished in the doldrums since the Swede left them in 2012 -- they qualified for the Champions League in the following season but have not finished higher than fifth since -- are on the path back to the pinnacle of Italian football.

In Serie A, they hold a five-point lead over city rivals Inter Milan after going 8-2-0 in their first 10 games, extending an undefeated streak in the league that dates back to March 8.

In the Europa League, they have negotiated one of the most difficult groups on paper with relative ease, a 3-0 defeat to Lille at the San Siro looking more like an aberration with every passing win. A 39-year-old Ibrahimovic is the man leading the charge, two clear of Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku in the scoring charts with 10 to his name already, and it doubtless helps his cause that around him are fresh legs aplenty.

With the exception of Ibrahimovic and defensive rock Simon Kjaer, every regular starter in head coach Stefano Pioli's Milan squad is under 30. Many -- including goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, winger Alexis Saelemaekers, and first-choice midfielders Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer -- are 23 or younger. As chief executive Ivan Gazidis has noted on several occasions, this is one of the youngest squads in Europe's top five leagues.

The fearlessness and effervescence of youth has been crucial to their success so far, Leao notes, with credit going to Pioli and those above them for a clear message that resonates across the club: Enjoy yourselves on the pitch.

"You have Ibra, he gives you the experience of playing Champions League, winning the Europa League. After him you have young players and a great coach, when [Pioli] comes to the match he says to us 'don't get pressured, play your game and enjoy.' When I hear that, that's what I do. I just enjoy the game.

"If we lose, we're going to improve and learn from it. The club gives us the confidence, we don't have pressure, we just enjoy the game.

"Of course [we feel the weight of expectations at Milan], we have to give 100 percent for this shirt. But when your coach tells you not to feel the pressure, to enjoy your game, that's the most important thing for a young player to hear, to show what you can do."

Though Milan's rise to the top of Serie A has taken much of Europe by surprise, it perhaps shouldn't have. After all, they were Italy's most in-form team as soon as football resumed in the country following its coronavirus-enforced stoppage, rising from 10th to sixth in the space of 12 games.

It might have been natural to coast their way to the 2020-21 campaign with nothing to play for in the final weeks of last season but Milan's response was quite the opposite.

"When we returned from lockdown, we went to every match like it was a final," says Leao. "Our group we said, 'this match is a final, the next match is a final.' That's the change."

The coming months may bring games rather more like finals as Milan look to compete on multiple fronts. Leao sees no reason why Milan can't compete for the Europa League and Serie A, insisting that Pioli has a squad of 23 quality players that can allow him to rotate and freshen up his side.

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Rafael Leao in action in AC Milan's 2-2 draw with Genoa AC Milan

Certainly Leao is acutely aware of the competition for his starting berth, one which has generally been on the left of the front three with Ibrahimovic playing centrally. A thigh injury in recent weeks left the Portuguese forward watching on as fellow 21-year-old Jens Petter Hauge put together a convincing case for his inclusion in Pioli's side.

That culminated in a superb solo goal last week as Milan came back from two goals down to beat Celtic 4-2 and secure their place in the Europa League knockout stages. Picking the ball up on the left touchline, level with the penalty area, Hauge beat three defenders with a burst of pace before slotting low beyond Vasilis Barkas' far post to the delight of Leao.

"In the first half, when we went to the dressing room, I said 'bro, keep going, go one against one and you're going to score.'

It's my teammate. When he helps the team, he helps me. When the team isn't going well, it's difficult for players to show up."

For now, that isn't something Leao needs to concern himself with. Momentum is on their side and they face two teams in the bottom quarter of Serie A following their final Europa League group stage game, away to Sparta Prague, on Thursday night (3 p.m. ET on CBS All Access).

Leao and his teammates are acutely aware that good form at this stage of the season counts for little if it is not replicated in the spring months. Signs of progress are welcome for a Milan side that have been rebuilding for nearly a decade. Ultimately, though, a club with their pedigree judges success by silverware.

This group is determined to join their predecessors in Milan's hall of fame, Leao says. "When we go to the matches we know we have to give 100 percent because this club won seven Champions League. 

"Coppa Italia, Europa League, it doesn't matter, we go to win always."

The weight of history is not weighing down young stars like Leao. Instead they are giving early indications that they might be able to join their mentor Ibrahimovic in Milan's record books.