With Montolivo injured, is it time for Milan to start Locatelli?
AC Milan captain Riccardo Montolivo has received plenty of criticism in recent times, but not even his most ardent of critics would have wished to see him pick up a serious knee injury on international duty last week.
The 31-year-old suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage following a challenge with Spain's Sergio Ramos in Turin last Thursday night, and after undergoing successful surgery he has been ruled out for six months.
Having spoken last week about Manuel Locatelli's rise and what it meant for Montolivo, the latter's absence now raises a serious question as to who fills the gap left in the heart of Milan's midfield.
For all his critics, the Rossoneri captain always had the faith of his coaches, and it was no different with Vincenzo Montella this season. Montolivo had been an ever-present for Milan thus far, and regardless of opinion from the stands, Montella valued his contribution significantly.
However, he will now likely be without his services for the remainder of the campaign, albeit there is a slight chance the Italian international regains full match fitness for the latter stages of the season.
Nevertheless, there are still two-and-a-half months to go before the January transfer window opens for business, and so the answers will have to come from within the current squad.
The obvious option for most would now be Locatelli, but Montella could see it as a risk to thrust the 18-year-old into the spotlight in such a crucial position with just six career Serie A appearances under his belt.
While his impact against Sassuolo would have done wonders for his confidence, Locatelli remains raw and susceptible to mistakes. In turn, it will require a lot of faith from his coach to turn around and ask him to run Milan's midfield.
Ideally, that will be the case though as he can only get better with regular playing time and will have the support of the senior players around him to ensure that he continues to develop and mature on the job.
As seen with the likes of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Davide Calabria and Alessio Romagnoli over the past year or so, if you're considered good enough to play then you're old enough to take on the responsibility of playing for Milan.
However, Montella does have options, assuming that Giacomo Bonaventura and Juraj Kucka keep their places either side of central midfield. Newcomer Matias Fernandez and teammate Andrea Bertolacci are currently sidelined through injury so they won't be available, while Chelsea loanee Mario Pasalic doesn't appear to be at the forefront of the coach's plans.
Unless the Italian tactician is considering a more defensive approach and placing Andrea Poli in the centre, the other option would be deploying summer signing Jose Sosa in a deeper role.
The Argentine international has been limited to just three appearances for the Rossoneri since his arrival from Besiktas this summer, but he has both experience and superior technical ability in his favour.
His experience alone could see him get the nod against Chievo Verona on Sunday night, and perhaps it's the safer bet at this stage given Locatelli's lack of playing time at the senior level.
Given that Montella continued to trust Montolivo in midfield, it wouldn't come as a surprise to see a more senior player in Sosa start on Sunday, but how refreshing would it be to see another product of the Milan youth system come through and have a significant run in the first team with the chance to establish himself in the line-up.
The January transfer window will potentially give Montella a chance to bolster his squad, provided that the takeover of the club from a Chinese consortium is completed before the end of the year as expected.
The 42-year-old ruled out a move for Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas on Wednesday in an interview with Corriere della Sera, explaining to reporters that the Spanish international ultimately doesn't have the attributes that he is seeking from a new midfield recruit.
Perhaps the former Fiorentina and Sampdoria boss already has an individual in mind who he believes ticks the right boxes, but until January he won't have the luxury of buying a player to fix his problem.
Milan face a trip to Chievo on Sunday night before hosting Juventus the following weekend. If Montella is to go with Locatelli, then the obvious time to allow him a chance to settle into the team would be this weekend, rather than throw him in against the five-time defending champions after his Sosa experiment potentially fails against the Mussi Volanti.
Hopefully the youngster is given the opportunity to become a mainstay in this Milan side, while despite criticising him myself this year, it's also hoped that Montolivo can have a positive influence on the squad from the sidelines and can make a swift and full recovery from his latest setback.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.