Rafael Leao is the next Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang according to some. To others he’s the next Gabriel Jesus, though given that the brilliant Brazilian is still a mere twenty years of age it could be said that a fully developed Gabriel Jesus is the next Gabriel Jesus. Whatever the truth is Leao – an 18-year-old starlet accumulating professional experience at Sporting B and on the cusp of promotion to the Sporting first team – is one of the hottest striking properties in the world right now with an array of attributes that astonishes for one so young.
Naturally then the roll-call of prospective buyers amounts to some very familiar names. Real Madrid are reportedly keen, as too Manchester United. Chelsea have been thrown into the mix also but with less plausibility. And topping the list and leading the chase is Manchester City with a figure of £25m being bandied around as gospel. Though Transfermarkt value him at £1.35m.
Between now and August we can expect a multitude of players linked to a multitude of clubs and some will be very far-fetched and made up in blogger’s spare bedrooms while others make perfect sense. This one lies at the latter end of the scale. This one really could happen.
Firstly though let’s concentrate on the player himself. Tall, pacy and powerful is always a good start for any forward but when it’s coupled to quick feet, an equally rapid footballing brain, and no preference for going one side over the other when facing a retreating opponent then suddenly people start talking.
His seven goals in 12 games for Sporting B has already seen him rewarded with a Portugal Under-21 cap and a fast-track to the more challenging climes of the Primeira Liga with Sporting where he enjoyed a 41 minute debut earlier this month. He widely impressed and especially so his coach Jorge Jesus who said soon after: “He is a strong kid and he was serene. Everything he did was done with quality. We will work step-by-step with Leao, who is one of the great talents our academy has.”
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What makes his swift emergence all the more remarkable is that Jesus is hardly known for trusting in youth. Sometimes though, so good is the prospect that exceptions have to be made.
Last October, Sporting extended the teenager’s contract to 2022 while upping his release clause to €60m but even this inflated figure for a player with so little game-time at an elite level won’t put off potential bidders. City are expected to return this summer after their initial water-tester of £22.2m was strongly rebuffed recently and here is where a direct comparison with Gabriel Jesus certainly can be made.
The Blues’ pursuit of the Brazilian international was ruthless and motivated, out-manoeuvring Barcelona and Real Madrid who each believed they were in serious contention. Consequently Pep Guardiola secured a young superstar for a fee of £27m that is already looking an absolute steal. Crucially they tried to replicate this approach with Kylian Mbappe but were unable to tie him down at an early juncture with the French forward then becoming the centre point of a ferocious bidding war that eventually escalated to a farcical sum.
Lessons were learned in both instances with the first acting as confirmation that quick, decisive action is always the best approach when targeting emerging talent. Mbappe meanwhile was a mistake that the club is determined not to repeat anytime soon.
It is worth considering how City’s first bid was allowed to enter the public domain in the first place with a leak from the Portuguese club the most likely origin. Sporting will understandably be very keen for other bidders to enter the fray and whipping up an auction will surely result in a colossal pay-day if such a strategy is successful. For their part City will be resolved to head such a plan off at the pass by swooping early and strong within weeks of the summer transfer window opening.
This is the intriguing proposition that awaits us in the months ahead and that’s before we even get to the mouth-watering idea of Leao cutting his baby-teeth in the Premier League, raw and sensational and learning each and every week under the expert tutorage of the Spanish Grandmaster.
Guardiola has already reportedly said privately that should the 18-year-old be secured he has no intention of loaning him out in a similar vein to so many of Manchester City’s youthful talent. Leao would instead be assimilated into the first team squad, presumably on the periphery but adding to an attacking arsenal that has broken records this term for their goal-scoring prowess.
A front three of Leao, Jesus and Sane ripping into top flight defences next year with nascent relish is a realistic possibility then. Their average age will be twenty. They will be coached by an individual who improves players ten-fold. Just the pace alone among the trio is frightening as hell. God help us all.