AC Milan v Sao Paulo - Audi Cup Third/Fourth Place Play-Off 2013 - Pre Season Friendly Tournament

Bryan Cristante’s memory does not always serve him well. Asked during an interview last March to recall how he first started playing football, the 18-year-old Milan midfielder responded with a theatrical groan. “Seriously?” he replied. “I don’t even remember what I did on Saturday.”

One assumes that this Monday’s events will stay with him a little longer. Four-and-a-half years after joining Milan as an academy prospect, this was the day when Cristante finally made his first start for the senior team. Deployed on the right of a three-man midfield against Atalanta, he marked the occasion with a fine goal – a searing 20-yard drive that crashed off the inside of Andrea Consigli’s right-hand upright and into the back of the net.

That strike sealed a 3-0 win for the Rossoneri, following an earlier brace from Kaká. It also caused Adriano Galliani to lose the run of himself. “Bryan is not moving from Milan, I have already said as much to his agent,” said the Milan vice-president. “He will play in the Champions League against Atlético Madrid, too.”

Supporters will be delighted to hear the first part of that statement (although Galliani has misled us on such matters before), even if the club’s manager, Massimiliano Allegri, might be a little perplexed to hear team selections being made on his behalf for a fixture that is still more than a month away. One swallow does not make a summer, and it is far too soon to assume that Cristante could be ready for such a crucial game.

With that being said, the signs on Monday were encouraging. Besides scoring his goal, Cristante also hit the crossbar early on, and played with an impressive assuredness throughout. A physically powerful player, he was quick to impose himself on the game, winning tackles and demanding the ball from his team-mates. There was no sense here of a player overawed.

And why should he be? Cristante might not remember the details of his footballing journey to this point, but he will be aware that he has dominated in every age category so far. In 2008, at 13 years old, he was called up to train with Italy’s Under-15 team, becoming, according to contemporary reports, the first Italian ever to receive a call-up while not yet on the books of a professional team. He was still playing for Liventina Gorghense, an amateur club (albeit one affiliated with Milan), at the time.

(As an aside, Cristante could also have represented Canada, had he so chosen to do so. He holds a passport through his father, who was born in Toronto.)

The Rossoneri brought Cristante into their academy in 2009, and in his first season he helped to drive their Under-15 side to a national title. A year later, he did the same thing with the Under-17s. By late 2011, he had caught the eye of Allegri, who called him up to train with the senior team. After just two sessions, the manager named Cristante in his squad to face Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League. Introduced as an 81st minute substitute, the midfielder became the youngest player ever to represent Milan in continental competition, at just 16 years and 278 days old.

Despite not making another senior appearance until this season, Cristante’s upward trajectory continued. Last February he was named as the best player at the annual Viareggio youth tournament, where Milan finished as runners-up behind Anderlecht.

Since last summer Cristante has been training full-time with the first team. As Milan struggled through the early part of the season, fans began to wonder how long it could be before this much-discussed talent got another shot. He had made just one appearance before last weekend, a five-minute cameo in a goalless draw against Chievo.

Allegri dwelled on that question as well. He considered starting Cristante against Roma in December, and then again for the Milan derby six days later, but worried about asking too much of the teenager. He went with Andrea Poli and Sulley Muntari instead, playing on either side of Nigel De Jong. Milan drew with the Giallorossi before losing to their city rivals.

Then came the winter break, and more time to ponder. Muntari would be suspended for the Atalanta game after being sent off in the dying moments against inter, and Riccardo Montolivo was still not yet ready to return from a muscle injury, but the manager still had other options, with Poli, De Jong and Antonio Nocerino all available. In the end he dropped the first of those in order to make room for Cristante.

His subsequent performance has left Allegri with fresh dilemmas, albeit ones that the manager should welcome. Cristante offers Milan a different set of attributes to the likes of Poli or Nocerino. His 6ft 1ins height, combined with his experience of playing at centre-back on occasion for the youth team, is an asset to a side that still gives up too many goals from set-pieces. He can contribute at the other end, too. Monday’s strike was no fluke, as anyone who saw his similarly brilliant effort against Barcelona’s youth team in November can attest. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guQNf-jSI1U)

More than anything, though, what Cristante can offer Milan right now is the naivety of youth. On paper, the Rossoneri ought not to be any weaker a team this year than they were last season, when they finished third, but somewhere along the way they seem to have misplaced their self-belief. Ground down by disappointing results, too many players have grown afraid to take the initiative, stumbling nervously through games that they should be dominating.

Cristante, by contrast, has a confidence that borders on excessive, a willingness to attempt the ambitious pass or shot any time he is in possession—even if sometimes he shouldn’t. His critics might call it arrogance, but that seems unfair on a player who also has the work ethic to match. Coaches depict him a consummate professional, one who shows up to work early every day and stays out after training to get a little extra work in.

None of this, of course, guarantees a great career ahead. Cristante’s development has caught the eye of several other leading European clubs, with both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen said to have made enquiries after seeing him at Viareggio, but until he has played a significant number of senior games, it is impossible to say whether he will live up to his potential. The recent examples of Rodney Strasser and Alexander Merkel, whose careers have not yet lived up to the high expectations placed upon them when they first emerged at Milan, provide a note of caution.

But after such a miserable start, Milan needed this injection of hope, a reason to believe that things can indeed get better. Galliani has been talking for some time about the importance of developing more young players in order for the club’s business model to become self-sustaining, and his new co-vice-president Barbara Berlusconi made the same point forcefully with some thinly-veiled criticisms at his work in recent months.

What could be better than the emergence of a player who Milan paid just €25,000 to acquire? The Rossoneri had been looking to reinforce their midfield this January, and were reportedly willing to offer co-ownership of Cristante in a bid to land Radja Naingglolan from Cagliari. That the Belgian signed for Roma instead could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If nothing else, Cristante’s potential transfer will be higher today than it was at the start of this week.

Milan’s supporters, though, would prefer him to stay and develop with the club he supported as a boy. Cristante, who signed a five-year contract last March, would like that, too, although he is impatient to play in more games. “If Galliani said that he will stay at Milan, then that is what will happen,” said the player’s agent, Giuseppe Riso, this week. “We only hope that Bryan manages to find more space in the team from here to the end of the season, because only by playing can a kid get better and gain experience.”

As with any club entrusting a starting place to a young player, Milan would be taking a gamble. But right now they sit 11th in the table, two points closer to the relegation zone than they are to a Europa League spot. It does not feel as though they have an awful lot to lose.