Milan stumble across a winning combination
MILAN (Reuters) - AC Milan's small number of new signings during the close season appears to have been a blessing for a club whose transfer policy over the last few seasons has infuriated their supporters.
The club were largely absent from the transfer market in the summer, forcing new coach Vincenzo Montella to turn to a mixture of young players who have emerged from the club's academy and journeyman professionals.
Whether by luck or design, it has proved a winning combination and Milan, having climbed to joint second in Serie A alongside AS Roma, host leaders Juventus on Saturday in what has become a top-of-the-table showdown.
One of Europe's biggest clubs, the seven-times European champions have finished eighth, 10th and seventh in Serie A in the last three seasons and even the much-maligned Europa League has been beyond them.
The last few years have been a tale of unsuccessful transfers and musical chairs in the coach's hot seat where Montella is the fifth incumbent since Massimiliano Allegri departed in 2014.
Allegri himself, hounded during his final year at Milan, is now happily installed at Juventus, where is has won two successive Serie A titles.
After three decades in charge, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi agreed in August to sell the club to a consortium of Chinese investors.
Until the deal is signed, however, Milan are unlikely to make any major new signings and they bought just three players during the summer, none of them big names, for a relatively modest total of 26 million euros ($28.51 million).
Given the club's recent unfortunate ventures into the transfer market, that may not be a bad thing.
Milan have made a habit of signing players past their peak and names such as Kaka, Mario Balotelli, Fernando Torres, Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Alessio Cerci, and Mattia Destro have all come and gone without making much impact.
In contrast, the team which beat Chievo 3-1 last week featured seven Italian-born players. Five of the team were aged 22 or under and four of them were raised by Milan themselves.
These included 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and 18-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli.
Forward M'Baye Niang, who initially signed for Milan as a 17-year-old in 2012, has returned and rediscovered his form after being loaned to Montpellier and Genoa.
"Before, we were lacking certainty and the Milan feeling but now we have a tactical identity, a united squad and defensive solidity," he said.
Perhaps the unlikeliest success story so far is 26-year-old striker Gianluca Lapadula, who has spent much of his career in the lower divisions and is already at his 10th professional club.
Montella knows that Milan fans have already seen a number of false dawns and is refusing to be carried away.
"Is this a title showdown? I don't share that idea, we need to keep a low profile," he said. "Our aim is to get back into Europe."
(Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar)