Rafael Leao drove home the fastest goal in Serie A history to set leaders Milan on their way to a 2-1 win at Sassuolo. 

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli said on Saturday that Leao's recent performances had been "not up to standard", but there was no faulting his sharp finish after six seconds at the Citta del Tricolore stadium. 

The 21-year-old former Lille forward took a pass from Hakan Calhanoglu in his stride and, with his third touch, smashed the ball past home goalkeeper Andrea Consigli. 

Alexis Saelemaekers added a second in the 26th minute and Milan's lead rarely came under threat from sixth-placed Sassuolo until Domenico Berardi netted an 89th-minute free-kick that made for a briefly tense finish.

Pioli fielded a team with an average age of just 22 years and 313 days, Milan's second youngest line-up since the 2004-05 season, when Opta began collecting such data. 

There was no Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the team's 39-year-old leading scorer absent after suffering a calf strain in training as he prepared for a first-team return. 

But after Juventus showed they remain a part of the Scudetto conversation with an impressive 4-0 win at Parma on Saturday, it was Milan's turn to show their hand, and they had an ace up their sleeve. 

Leao put an emphatic finishing touch to Milan's immediate charge through the Sassuolo ranks, with Brahim Diaz playing the kick-off short to Calhanoglu, who raced straight towards the penalty area in what looked a well-rehearsed ploy. Calhanoglu's pass through to Leao was smashed in, leaving the home side shell-shocked and still yet to touch the ball. 

Milan thought they had a second goal in the ninth minute when Calhanoglu drove home low into the left corner from the edge of the penalty area, but a marginal offside in the build-up saw the goal disallowed after a VAR check. 

They were nevertheless in control and full value for their second goal when it arrived in the 26th minute. Theo Hernandez ran from deep inside his half down the left flank before darting infield and clipping a short pass that gave Saelemaekers a tap-in. 

Gianluigi Donnarumma made a fine diving stop to keep out a fizzing 25-yard shot from Mehdi Bourabia in the second half, before Milan threatened a third when Jens Petter Hauge's curling shot from similar range was pushed away by Consigli. 

Sassuolo had the final say as Berardi got his shot beyond the Milan wall, but the visitors survived.

What does it mean? Milan demonstrate title credentials

The arrival of Ibrahimovic and his alpha manner almost 12 months ago might have instigated this Milan revival, but without him on the pitch they are proving formidable too, a team so confident they could attempt and pull off that audacious charge at goal from kick-off.

The young side on Sunday looked every inch potential champions. 

Milan tactical shift foils Sassuolo 

Milan had just 32 per cent of possession, their lowest rate of the season in the league. But when they broke, they did so with pace and numbers, white shirts swarming the Sassuolo defence. Milan had 66 per cent possession against Hellas Verona in November and 65.26 per cent last week against Parma, but they drew both those games 2-2.

This time a counter-attacking style suited the occasion, with Milan happy to let their hosts dominate possession and then sting on the counter. Centre-back Pierre Kalulu played the most passes among Milan players with a modest 39, against a team-high 103 from Sassuolo's Gian Marco Ferrari. 

Diaz a soft touch 

Diaz made his sixth Serie A start of the season but was nowhere near as involved as Milan would have liked.

He played just nine passes all game and had a mere 14 touches before making way for Hauge in the 57th minute. Only three players have had fewer touches among those who have taken part in 55 minutes or more of a game in Italy's top flight this season. 

Key Opta facts

- Rafael Leao's goal after six seconds sees him beat the previous record set by Paolo Poggi, scored for Piacenza in December 2001 (8 seconds).
- Only Barcelona in 1948 (18 consecutive games) have scored two or more goals for more top-five European league matches in a row in a single calendar year than Milan in 2020 (15).
- In the history of the single round Serie A (since 1929-30), no unbeaten sides after 13 games played have finished the campaign outside the top four positions.
- Theo Hernandez has provided three assists in Serie A this season in 12 games played, already equalling his tally for the 2019-20 campaign.
- Domenico Berardi has scored his fourth Serie A goal direct from a free-kick, while it is his second against Milan (the other was in October 2015).

What's next?

Milan face Lazio on Wednesday in a San Siro test before the league goes on its winter break. Sassuolo head to Sampdoria on the same evening.