Victory over Roma would quiet Vincenzo Montella's critics at Milan
It seems strange to suggest that a game in October is so crucial for AC Milan, but that's what faces them this weekend when they host Roma at the San Siro. Vincenzo Montella is coming under pressure very early this season, and both the Milan boss and his players must step up and silence the doubters.
Ten wins in 12 games in all competitions so far this season, including Europa League qualifiers, would suggest that Montella is doing a stellar job. However, it doesn't tell the whole story as the level of opposition must be taken into account.
The Rossoneri have cantered to comfortable wins over the likes of Shkendija and Austria Wien, and at times they've looked very impressive. Having had to integrate 11 new players over the summer in a rebuilt squad with high expectations, it was never going to be easy.
However, when the opposition has stepped up, notably in trips to Lazio and Sampdoria, Milan haven't been able to match them, and in turn it has raised serious questions about Montella's ability to coach this side to success, and about the players who have disappointed and must share the blame.
Looking deeper into the results, Milan only just scraped through with a win over Rijeka on Thursday night, needed two penalties to see off SPAL and had Suso to thank for a moment of magic in the win over Cagliari.
Many supporters still believe that Montella is the man to take the club forward, and these problems were to be expected with such a dramatically changed side early in the campaign. However, others argue that they've already seen enough struggles to determine that Milan won't get to where they want to be with him at the helm.
His situation wasn't helped with Carlo Ancelotti's sacking this week by Bayern Munich, as the Milan hero is still highly revered by supporters after such successful stints with the club both as a player and a coach. In turn, it ramps up the pressure on the current boss to get things right, as it seems as though a possible replacement is suddenly back on the market.
However, it's surely too early to be discussing Montella's future. The defeat at Lazio was a capitulation either side of half-time and while it was wholly unacceptable, it can be forgiven to an extent in that it was an almost unexplainable collapse that Milan can learn from.
In contrast, though, the Sampdoria loss was a real cause for concern as it raised doubts over Montella's tactics and ability to change a game, and the players certainly didn't cover themselves in glory, either.
Speaking of those players, their coach needs more from them, too. Leonardo Bonucci is not performing at the level that we've grown used to seeing from him in past years, and various other individuals need to step up, take on leadership roles and drag Milan to better performances if need be.
Nevertheless, it's still a vicious cycle in that Montella can be blamed for various issues: from refusing to rest Franck Kessie to rotating the likes of Andre Silva, Hakan Calhanoglu and Giacomo Bonaventura in and out of the team, offering them no real chance of continuity and consistency.
While he has options and needs to keep everyone happy and fresh, this is the time for Montella to put out his best team and build a formidable group capable of competing on all fronts. The international break follows the Roma game, so there are no excuses when it comes to putting out a strong lineup with those who have impressed thus far.
It's never nice to lose and is unacceptable for Milan, but if the result doesn't arrive on Sunday evening, then so be it. But we can't see a repeat of the display that we saw against Sampdoria, which showed a Milan side devoid of commitment, desire, invention and charisma, looking inferior and failing to even threaten to score.
Roma are a direct rival for a Champions League qualification spot this season and have a settled squad with many top-class players. It won't be easy, but Milan must now prove that they can go toe-to-toe with a top side.
Seeing off SPAL, Shkendija and Crotone is all well and good, but falling short against Lazio and possibly Roma, with the Milan derby to come, is simply not good enough.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.