After a 'summer of dreams,' upgraded AC Milan ready for Europa League
It's been a busy summer for AC Milan since Yonghong Li's takeover in April, as the Rossoneri have worked relentlessly to strengthen the squad. Ten new players have arrived and manager Vincenzo Montella has described it as a "summer of dreams" now that he has a squad capable of pushing the club forward.
A sixth-place finish in Serie A last season was enough to book their spot in the Europa League qualifying round. While there were jubilant scenes at the San Siro when their return to Europe was confirmed, it also means a much earlier start to competitive football this year with preseason plans altered accordingly.
In turn, Milan face a trip to Romania to take on Universitatea Craiova on Thursday night, and while they'll be far from full strength, it doesn't change the necessity for a positive result to kick-start this new era in the right manner.
A lack of match fitness and sharpness could be problematic, as Montella's side have played just three preseason games while also navigating their way around China as part of their tour obligations to continue to build on the excitement created by Li's purchase of the club.
Further, there are several notable absentees from the group heading to Romania. Leonardo Bonucci, Lucas Biglia, Hakan Calhanoglu, Alessio Romagnoli, Suso, Gabriel Paletta and Carlos Bacca all miss out due to a variety of reasons, and so Montella will have to get the best out of those who have travelled.
At this stage, perhaps it's not so much about the performance. The objective will be to return to Milan with a positive result, and so a professional and aggressive display will be needed to match what Craiova offer, while the quality in this side should be more than enough to prevail.
Early figures suggest the San Siro will be packed for the return leg as supporters hope to see several of the new signings in action. That second encounter will be about turning on the style and delivering a performance for all concerned to be excited about.
Rivals and detractors will undoubtedly be ready to jump on any poor result, but it's crucial to get the campaign started with the right approach and after completing the China tour with a comprehensive 4-0 win over Bayern Munich, the early signs are promising.
After the disappointment of losing to Borussia Dortmund 3-1, Milan were much more aggressive and attack-minded against the Bundesliga champions, and delivered very encouraging results. They will have to produce something similar in Romania, where their opponents will treat this as a huge opportunity to stun Europe.
From the incessant pressing to the excellent ball retention and swift team moves which ultimately led to two exceptional goals against Bayern, there was much to be pleased about last week, and perhaps it was an early insight into what to expect from Montella and his players this season.
The Italian tactician struggled to implement his preferred style of play last year, with a lack of technical quality in his side forcing his hand in many ways. In turn, the club have now delivered the calibre of players that he would have been desperate to work with, but conversely, the pressure is certainly on his shoulders to now bring everything together.
While the Europa League isn't part of the long-term plan, it's undoubtedly a serious objective this season. Aside from the fact that it offers a route to the Champions League if Milan fail in Serie A, it's an opportunity to win another major European trophy and to help this side grow and improve together.
Milan have every intention to treat this competition seriously, as that has essentially been the message coming from the club over the past few months and it has to be seen as part of the process to getting back to where they eventually want to be.
In an ideal world, no coach or squad wants to start a gruelling season at the end of July. But the Rossoneri will embrace the challenge and the long road ahead, one they hope will lead to silverware when the campaign comes to an end next May.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.