Brahim Diaz played more Fortnite than football in Madrid but Guardiola’s protege is finally blossoming in Milan

The Spanish attacking midfielder has never lacked confidence in his own ability but only now is he playing regular first-team football at a top club
After Brahim Diaz had made the breakthrough in last week’s victory over Venezia, AC Milan fans at the Giuseppe Meazza made a slight modification to a chant previously reserved for club legend Kaka.

“We came here to see Brahim score!” they joyously sang. They’d been waiting a while too. Diaz hadn’t scored in his 16 previous Serie A outings at San Siro.

So when Diaz rounded off a fine team move by converting a clever cushioned cross from Theo Hernandez, the stadium erupted, and not just because the Spaniard’s strike had belatedly broken Venezia’s stubborn resistance with just under 23 minutes to play.

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Diaz was back at it this weekend, scoring a late winner away at Spezia only minutes after coming off the bench before celebrating jubilantly in front of the away support.

Milan fans have really taken to the 22-year-old this season, and that’s unsurprising.

Perhaps their affection was borne of a desperation to see Diaz prove a worthy replacement for the man whose No10 jersey he had inherited, Hakan Calhanoglu. However, there’s also been a noticeable improvement in Diaz’s play this season.

He had impressed sporadically last season, having arrived on a season-long loan from Real Madrid, but there is no denying that Milan’s priority was to hold on to Hakan, who had played a massive role in the Rossoneri’s revival after being deployed as a trequartista by coach Stefano Pioli.

Much to the disgust of the club’s fans, the Turkey international allowed his contract to expire, paving the way for a free transfer to city rivals Inter.

The talented Hakan should prove another shrewd signing by Nerazzurri CEO Beppe Marotta, but Milan’s faith in Diaz is also paying off.

Once it became clear that they would need a new No 10, Pioli pushed for Diaz’s return and Milan managed to agree a two-year loan deal for a fee of €3 million (£2.6m/$3.5m). He’s wasted little time in vindicating that decision.

Diaz managed seven goals in all competitions last season; he already has four in seven games this term, including a winner at Sampdoria, an equaliser in the 3-2 Champions League loss at Liverpool and the tap-in on Saturday which earned three points in La Spezia.

He clearly still has work to do. Diaz has a frustrating tendency to drift in and out of games, while his finishing can leave a lot to be desired. For example, he butchered one gilt-edged opportunity before opening the scoring against Venezia last Wednesday.

However, his talent is obvious. It always has been. We’re talking about a player that Pep Guardiola showed around Camp Nou in 2011, so keen was the then-Barcelona boss to sign the Malaga youth academy product.

When Guardiola did eventually get to work with Diaz at Manchester City – who signed him as a 14-year-old in 2016 – the Catalan handed the attacking midfielder his professional debut in a League Cup tie with Swansea just a couple of months after taking over.

He couldn’t have been held in higher esteem at Etihad Stadium at the time, with former youth team team-mate Edward Francis telling Goal: “In the Premier League, we can compare him with Eden Hazard, but he is a bit like [Lionel] Messi in the way he dribbles.”

Guardiola was bitterly disappointed when Diaz turned down a new contract in order to push through a £15m ($19m) transfer to Madrid in 2019.

Diaz had been drawn to the Spanish capital by the promise of first-team football but he did not see as much game time as he would have liked, and scored just two goals in 21 appearances in all competitions over the course of two campaigns.

In the end, he probably played more Fortnite than football in Madrid.

“Real didn’t give him the required space and, above all else, the confidence he needed,” Diaz’s agent, Pedro Gonzalez, told Tuttomercatoweb last year. “He’s a young player and he needs to play continuously to bring out his full potential.”

Diaz featured far more regularly at San Siro, making 15 starts in Serie A alone last season, racking up four goals and three assists in the process. However, Hakan’s departure has now removed the major obstacle between him and regular appearances in his preferred position.

“Last year, we played him like a midfielder,” Pioli told Sky Sport Italia last week. “Brahim is a pure attacking midfielder. He is a boy with great belief in his own ability but he just needed time to mature.”

Indeed, having to bide his time may have actually proven a blessing in disguise for Diaz.

It may have taken longer than he expected but he is now the starting trequartista at a top European club and revelling in the role. Indeed, when Milan fans return to San Siro on Tuesday night for the crunch Champions League clash with Atletico Madrid, they will now do so expecting – rather than hoping – to see Brahim score.

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