Vincenzo Montella's dream summer as ambitious AC Milan motor into gear
Earlier this summer, Milan's new chief executive Marco Fassone compared the club to a classic car that had been allowed to gather dust in the garage. With that in mind, this transfer window has been all about restoring it to its former glory with a load of flashy, expensive new parts and some work under the hood. When it came to putting the keys in the ignition for the first time, though, there was always the risk that instead of producing the hum of Berlusconi's preausterity Milan, it would splutter and stall.
Some called Milan's first outing of the season their biggest game in years, which will raise a few eyebrows outside of Italy, as it was only against CS U Craiova in the third qualifying round of the Europa League. But Milan have been absent from Europe for more than three years; too long for a club whose reputation is defined by winning the Champions League on more occasions than any team other than Real Madrid.
Albeit just a friendly, last week's 4-0 win against Bayern Munich in China did nothing to discourage the enthusiasm built up by the new Milan administration since the first days of summer. As a test drive it boded well for their first foray into official competition against far less illustrious opponents. But Milan neither made a false start nor left CS U Craiova trailing in a cloud of dust in Thursday's 1-0 away win.
It was a display reminiscent of last season, not least because the personnel was hardly any different from the 2016-17 vintage. Seven members of the starting XI were at the club last term. The paperwork on the Leonardo Bonucci and Lucas Biglia deals didn't go through in time for both to be available for the trip to Romania, and of Milan's 10 new faces, only four were on show from the start, including Fabio Borini, who is expected to have a supporting role rather than a leading one.
Nothing transformational then and yet, while Milan didn't excite, they got the job done with an away goal and a clean sheet, avoiding the embarrassment other Italian teams have suffered at this stage and the kind that befell PSV Eindhoven against Osijek. With little less than a month to go until the curtain opens on another season in Serie A, Vincenzo Montella said: "I couldn't have expected more," from his players against a team who, minnow status notwithstanding, started the Romanian season two weeks ago and are further along in their physical preparation than Milan.
Milan's momentum unchecked, the positives to draw from an ever-so-slightly underwhelming performance were still plenty. Gigi Donnarumma put his disappointing performances at the Under-21 Euros behind him with a big save from Alexandru Mitrita at 0-0. He looks to have recovered his composure now his future has been resolved. Mateo Musacchio gave a complete defensive performance and was man of the match. The first signing of the new era at Milan, the handsome Argentine is often forgotten about and was overshadowed by the Bonucci transfer but looks like making this Milan back line so much more solid.
The game was decided by Ricardo Rodriguez, whose free-kick goal offered a reminder of the set-piece prowess he established his reputation on at Wolfsburg, a weapon sorely missing from Milan's armoury since Andrea Pirlo's exit in 2011. It was Milan's first goal in Europe since Kaka's against Celtic nearly four years ago.
Montella was already thrilled after the Bayern game with how quickly Milan's new boys are settling in at the club. No one has looked like "a fish out of water." Franck Kessie and Hakan Calhanoglu both scored on that occasion and in keeping with the academy producing a first-team player every year for the past two years, Patrick Cutrone, who started in Craiova on the back of his brace against the German champions, could follow in Donnarumma and Manuel Locatelli's footsteps and make an impact this season.
Cutrone's emergence, Suso's recovery from injury, Andre Silva's return from holiday and M'baye Niang's impressive preseason following his return from a loan spell at Watford have left Milan in less of a hurry to sign a striker and another wide player than they were earlier in the window.
Landing a marquee No. 9 remains a priority but the dynamic of the club's recruitment strategy has changed. At the start of the summer, Milan recognised that, in light of the absence of Champions League football and their lack of competitiveness in Serie A in recent years, they would have to overpay in wages and agents' commissions in order to persuade players to join. The Bonucci deal and the ripples it sent throughout the continent changed all that. Milan are seen to mean business again. In a matter of weeks they have recovered the appeal they lost in the years since their last Scudetto. Targets now don't need their arm-twisting. They want to come.
It explains why Milan are keeping Fiorentina striker Nikola Kalinic on ice. If there is a thaw in Torino or Borussia Dortmund's positions for Andrea Belotti or Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Milan want to be able to act. The same goes for Diego Costa or Radamel Falcao, both of whom are represented by Jorge Mendes. Milan and Mendes have already done business together this summer on the Silva deal and their meeting in Sardinia last week hints that it isn't over, particularly with Milan's director of sport Massimiliano Mirabelli going on the record about their interest in Bayern midfielder Renato Sanches and the Portugal international flirting back.
The promise of another big signing has Milan fans queuing up to buy season tickets. They're up threefold on a year ago and the hope is that Milan will go close to the 43,000 they sold after last winning the Champions League in 2007. Next week's second leg with Craiova is expected to fill San Siro even though the profile of Milan's opponents is obscure and August is when even the most hardcore fans prefer the beach to the football stadium.
Concern about Milan's aggressive spending, compliance with financial fair play and just how much of their backing is borrowed money continues to provoke debate. Roma owner Jim Pallotta expressed his own scepticism and befuddlement in strong terms before apologising "If I have incorrect information."
It could all be castles made of sand. We will just have to wait and see. Montella has probably been asking those around him to pinch him to check if he really is awake.
"It's been and still is a summer of dreams," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "And the great thing is my dreams are not yet fulfilled. They're not over yet."
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.