Upstart Milan ready for big test vs. Juventus

With five wins in eight games to start the campaign, AC Milan sit in third place in Serie A and just five points adrift of leaders Juventus ahead of their showdown at the San Siro on Saturday night.

It's been a positive start to the Vincenzo Montella era on the whole, with Milan making their best start to a campaign after eight games since 2010. All this with a starting line-up with the youngest average age in Italy's top flight last weekend at 24 years and 231 days, there are several positives to consider.

However, both the Italian tactician and his players will now have big questions to answer this weekend as they host the Serie A champions.

The Rossoneri have had some tough assignments already this season, but ultimately this will be the most difficult yet. Juve have won their last six consecutive games, and have beaten Milan in their last nine meetings, a run which includes the disappointing defeat in last season's Coppa Italia final.

It's fair to say that the Bianconeri are the favourites for this one, but Montella should relish the opportunity to go up against Juventus and to see how far his young team have come in the short space of time he has worked with them.

The 42-year-old was keen to downplay Scudetto talk earlier this week, insisting that his primary focus is on restoring confidence within the squad and ensuring that Milan return to Europe sooner rather than later.

In truth, it's the smartest approach at this stage and he's right to take it game-by-game as Milan are essentially still building and can't get carried away with their early progress.

That's what makes this Juventus game so fascinating though, as it's an opportunity to see whether or not recent results are subsequently translating into a more confident group of players who are capable of expressing themselves against the best in the business.

Montella has placed his faith in a young nucleus, all of whom will have important roles to play this weekend. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli, Mattia De Sciglio, Manuel Locatelli and M'Baye Niang will all likely start against Juve, and it will serve as a crucial part of their learning process.

The experience of merely playing in the big games is a significant benefit for them, but they must prove, along with the rest of the team, that they're more than comfortable featuring in such an important fixture against a side that will test them right across the pitch. Many of them will be involved in decisive battles, and while we're starting to see some of Montella's tactical flexibility now, the team as a whole will have to stay compact and use their strengths to upset the odds.

Much has changed since that heartbreaking loss in the Coppa Italia final in Rome in May, with Cristian Brocchi replaced after a short stint in charge and a reshuffle within the squad leading to improved results.

In contrast, Massimiliano Allegri's side have continued on a familiar path as they look to dominate domestically yet again this season while also conquering the Champions League. Nevertheless, there is a genuine argument to suggest that although the Bianconeri remain on a level above the rest of the competition, Milan are capable of shortening the gap this season if they continue to mature and improve.

The beauty of this current group is that although they're impressing many with how much they've come on in the early stages of the season, there is still so much room for improvement. Coupled with the fact that so many of them are young individuals with several even coming through the club's youth system, supporters are more patient and willing to give them a chance to learn as they go along provided that they show the right desire and commitment.

All that combined has resulted in a positive new atmosphere starting to build at Milan. A potential defeat to Juve will be deflating depending on the manner in which it happens, but a win will be huge for this squad and a packed San Siro on Saturday night will add to the occasion and help the players really test the visitors.

Given the frustrations and setbacks in recent years, the Rossoneri are still rebuilding a winning mentality and trying to find consistency in their performances and results. Last weekend's win over Chievo was important as it showed that they are starting to pick up that winning habit again, but victory over the champions would give this young team real belief in their abilities as Montella looks to continue to lead them back up the table.