AC Milan travelled to Madrid on Wednesday knowing that they needed to leave the Wanda Metropolitano with three points if they wanted any hope of qualifying for the Champions League round of 16. 

The Rossoneri returned to Europe’s biggest stage after a seven-year absence this season and unfortunately, they were drawn in one of the hardest groups alongside Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, and Porto. 

Milan supporters had seemingly lost all hope after losing their opening three matches but a 1-1 draw against Porto in matchday four meant the Rossoneri still had a mathematical chance at qualifying if they were to win their next two games.

The visitors were the better team in the first half but they lacked a clinical edge in the final third to open the scoring. Milan Coach Stefano Pioli knew he was going to need to make some changes to break down Simone’s defence.

Enter Junior Messias in the 65th minute. The Brazilian comes on to make his Champions League debut after being limited to only two Serie A appearances this season after suffering back-to-back injuries since his arrival from Crotone.

The winger kept Atletico on their toes as he brought flair to Milan’s attack and won several free kicks.

With three minutes remaining, Franck Kessie received the ball down the left flank and sent in a perfect left-footed cross into the Atletico penalty box. Junior Messias makes a run past Stefan Savić and José María Giménez and leaps for the cross, heading the ball past Atletico’s Jan Oblak to give Milan the lead.

Messias’ goal keeps Milan’s hopes of reaching the UCL knockout phase alive. | Photo: AC Milan

In the biggest game in his career, Messias delivered the game-winner that would seal three points for his side.

His goal puts Milan third in their group, overtaking Atletico on goal difference as both sides currently have four points heading into the last matchday. Porto remains a point ahead whereas Liverpool have already qualified as group winners. 

The Rossoneri will need a win against Liverpool and hope that Porto either draw or lose against Atletico if they want to seal an unlikely ticket to the round of 16.

Messias’ fairytale 

Born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Junior Walter Messias found success in his early footballing career as he played for Brazilian side Cruzeiro in his youth. He may have shown promise in his early years, but he never showed enough potential to make it big. 

Messias chased a professional contract for years but by his 20th birthday, he realized that he could no longer chase this dream if he wanted to provide for his wife and child. His family moved to Italy in 2011 to live with his brother in Turin, where he worked multiple jobs and played amateur football in his spare time.

Messias went from delivering fridges to playing football against the likes of Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann. | Photo: Quotidiano Piemontese

The Brazilian did any work he could find, from polishing breaks for 20 cents a pop to delivering kitchen appliances. However, during one of his amateur matches, former Serie A player Ezio Rossi approached Messias and persuaded him to play for Italian fifth-tier side Casale.

However, Messias would be unable to sign for Casale until he received an Italian residency visa. Like plenty of other undocumented migrants who have come to Italy, his story would end in one of two ways: unformed officers knocking on his door to send him back home or having his application being approved by a judge.

Messias was fortunate enough to receive a Visa and he signed a €1,500 a month contract with Casale the following day. 

At 24, Messias was born-again as a footballer and was given a second chance to make a name for himself, this time in the Italian football pyramid. He would scale Italian football year after year, going from the fifth tier to featuring alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic in just six seasons.

In his first season in Italy, Messias made a name for himself by scoring 21 goals in 31 games for Casale. He then earned a move to Serie D side Chieri and helped them win the Coppa Italia Serie D in 2017.

Messias was slowly gaining attention. In 2018, he helped Gozzano reach Serie C promotion and spent an additional season with the club before being signed by Crotone.

He made his Serie B debut with the Pythagoreans in 2019 and accumulated twelve goal contributions in his first season with the Calabria-based side.

Upon their promotion to Serie A in the 2020-21 season, Crotone managed just six wins in 38 matches, yet, the Brazilian had quietly impressed in his first season in Italy’s top flight. In 36 matches, the Belo Horizonte native amassed nine goals and 4 assists while also being only one of two players to complete at least 100 dribbles during the 2020-21 Serie A season.

It seemed as though Messias would accompany Crotone back to Serie B but in the final hours of the summer mercato, AC Milan called. 

The Crotone attacker joined Milan on a €2.6m fee for loan fee with an option to buy at €5.4m. | Photo: Sky Sports

Messias was offered a deadline day move to the Rossoneri as the club needed an extra bench player after failing to land one of their top targets.

Milan fans were quick to criticize the management of their newest signing. Rossoneri supporters were expecting a household name to join the side after qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2014.

After waiting for 17 matches to prove his worth to Rossoneri supporters, Messias delivered in the most spectacular manner. 

Following Milan’s victory, the 30-year-old dedicated his game-winning goal to his family and everyone else who believed in him during an interview with Amazon Prime Video Italia.

“I am very happy with the performance and the victory, it means we are still alive, but there’s a lot of work still to be done. It was all instinct, I just followed the move and kept calm as the ball came my way. When you are calm, you can do great things.”

Messias added: “What happened is the most important moment of my career, but humility is still so important. I mustn’t get downbeat with criticism, nor elated by compliments. I dedicate this goal to my family and all those who believed in me.”

Wednesday night was the latest step in what has been an incredible footballing journey for the Brazilian. Could Junior Messias be the next Jamie Vardy fairytale? Only time will tell, but it is stories like these that make us fall in love with the beautiful game all over again.