Rafael Leão held his head in his hands, but this was no gesture of despair. The Portuguese forward had just watched his Milan teammate, Theo Hernández, score the goal that would put them within a point of claiming the Scudetto, sealing a 2-0 win over Atalanta. He should have been celebrating but needed to stop for a moment and try to fathom what he had just seen.

Theo had set off from the left corner of Milan’s penalty area moments before. When the ball ran to him from a sliding challenge by Rade Krunic on Jérémie Boga, he claimed it and took off, moving inside to shed one opponent and then accelerating away from another as he crossed halfway.

Berat Djimsiti came haring across from the right, but Theo jagged left and caused the defender to collide with another teammate, Marten de Roon, on the edge of their 18-yard box. José Luis Palomino, the last defender, backed away, a bedazzled bystander to an unfolding moment in football history. Theo fired back across his body and into the bottom right corner of the net.

It was not, could not be, the deciding goal in this season’s title race, not with Inter still in touching distance and waiting to play away at Cagliari later that evening. If Milan do seal the deal, though, this will be the highlight that gets played every time their triumph is remembered for decades to come.

Parallels were immediately drawn with the iconic “coast to coast” goal scored by George Weah against Verona in 1996. They scored at opposite ends of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, but he and Theo had started their runs from near identical positions, covering as many yards in more or less the same amount of time. Heck, even their names almost rhyme.

Or perhaps comparing Theo to Weah was not taking things far enough. Milan’s goalkeeper, Mike Maignan, posted an Instagram story afterwards insisting that “Not even Messi has done this”. Hyperbole? Oh, just a little. And who could begrudge that to a group who stand on the verge of ending Milan’s 11-year title drought?

They are 15 games unbeaten in the league, and this was their fifth consecutive win. They were supposed to have the tougher run-in than Inter, with games at Lazio and ‘Fatal’ Verona, and home matches against Fiorentina then this Atalanta side – both chasing European qualification of their own.

This Theo Hernández fella is unreal! ?

Runs through the entire Atalanta squad and slots home Milan’s second.

Is that the goal that seals the title? ? pic.twitter.com/z6MsbhrSsO

— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 15, 2022

This weekend’s opponents might have taken a step back from recent seasons, falling out of the Champions League places after three straight third-place finishes, but they remain dangerous opponents for anyone: the fourth-most prolific team in the league. Milan had not beaten them at home for eight years. Stefano Pioli’s first game against them after taking charge of the Rossoneri in 2019 ended in a 5-0 defeat.

On Sunday, Milan struggled at first to find ways through Atalanta’s deliberately congested midfield. Instead, in the second half, they bypassed it, Junior Messías lifting a pass over the top for Leão, who headed it down and ran through to slip a side-footed finish through the legs of Juan Musso for the game’s opening goal.

Play should have been stopped before he ever had a chance to shoot. Milan had won possession with a foul, Pierre Kalulu bringing down Matteo Pessina from behind. Several players seemed to hesitate, expecting a whistle, but none came and Fikayo Tomori did well to stay alert in that moment, spreading the ball out to Messías to begin the move.

Atalanta found their best chance between Milan’s two goals, Duván Zapata heading off target after getting in front of his man at a corner. He has not been the same since sustaining the first of a series of muscle injuries in December, scoring just once in his last 12 appearances compared with 12 in 19 beforehand.

He is only the latest in a long line of strikers, however, to be thwarted by a Milan defence that has kept 17 clean sheets in this Serie A season, and 11 since the start of the calendar year. Pioli’s team are first and foremost very hard to break down.

Among the many striking statistics of this season is the fact that the top scorer for the league leaders – Leão – has just 11 goals. Nobody else is in double figures. Milan have found different heroes in different moments, from Theo to Sandro Tonali, Olivier Giroud, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Inter’s Argentine forward Lautaro Martínez scores his side’s third goal in the 3-1 win over Cagliari.
Inter’s Argentine forward Lautaro Martínez scores his side’s third goal in the 3-1 win over Cagliari. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

The Swede did not get on to the pitch on Sunday, but he did crack the front window of the team bus as it arrived before kick-off, thumping too hard in acknowledgement of the sea of fans who waited to greet it at San Siro. Asked whether this could have been Ibrahimovic’s last chance to play here, Pioli said “I hope not”, leaving the door open for another contract renewal beyond this summer.

He could not afford to indulge the Swede, or any other player, on Sunday with a title on the line. Even at full time, Pioli knew the job was not yet done, telling reporters he had shown his players a video of Kobe Bryant in which the five-time NBA champion insisted a playoff series was not finished despite his team leading by two games to none.

Inter would not give them an easy passage. Later that evening, Serie A’s reigning champions won 3-1 at Cagliari, pushing the title race to the final weekend. Their manager, Simone Inzaghi, pointed out that he won a Scudetto under similar circumstances as a player in 2000, when Juventus suffered a 1-0 defeat at Perugia that allowed Lazio to jump ahead by a single point.

“Sassuolo are an excellent team,” he observed of Milan’s final opponents. “We want to play out all of our chances, in football you can never give up.”

Quick Guide

Serie A results

Show

Cagliari 1-3 Inter, Milan 2-0 Atalanta, Napoli 3-0 Genoa, Bologna 1-3 Sassuolo, Roma 1-1 Venezia, Udinese 2-3 Spezia, Verona 0-1 Torino, Empoli 1-1 Salernitana

Monday Sampdoria v Fiorentina, Juventus v Lazio

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His misfortune is to run into rivals with the same mindset. “As I set off, I told myself, ‘I’m taking this all the way to the end’,” said Theo Hernandez as he sought to explain his solo strike. “It’s the most important goal of my life.”

One so brilliant that some of his own teammates were unable to celebrate, losing themselves in the moment instead. Leão had his head in his hands on Sunday. Milan hold the destiny of the Scudetto in theirs as they head into the final weekend.