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Pulisic & the Milan stars putting Chelsea to shame

Pulisic & the Milan stars putting Chelsea to shame

In the grand scheme of things, Christian Pulisic’s opener in AC Milan’s predictably facile win over Lecce on Saturday may not have meant much. The Rossoneri have no hope of winning Serie A. Truth be told, with Champions League qualification almost effectively wrapped up, their primary objective at this stage of the domestic season is ensuring that their hated city rivals, Inter, don’t win the league in the derby April 22.

But Pulisic’s goal at the Giuseppe Meazza was nonetheless met by spirited celebrations, by Milan’s players, coaching staff and supporters. Why? Because it was symbolic of his incredible improvement and increased importance as a player since arriving at San Siro last summer. The club’s kit man, Hesham Hassan, even took to social media after the game to point out that the hugely popular Pulisic had once again scored with his ‘weaker’ left foot.

The 25-year-old posted a rapid reply: “Hahaha I always listen!” And who could possibly disagree? After all, Pulisic wouldn’t be enjoying the most satisfying spell of his club career right now if he weren’t such a good listener…

‘Attitude shone through’

Stefano Pioli has done a lot of video calls with prospective signings over the years. Few have ever gone as well as last summer’s chat with Pulisic. He was already aware of the American’s attributes as a player but, when they spoke, he “sensed something very positive” about his personality too.

“He didn’t talk very much, but it was his attitude that shone through,” Pioli explained. “He was very eager, curious, and interested in everything I had to say.” Pioli had absolutely no doubts that he was dealing with “an exemplary professional”, “a hard worker” that would make Milan “stronger”.

The call was also key from Pulisic’s perspective. He already knew that he had to leave Chelsea to revive a flagging career; leaving the circus at Stamford Bridge was “a no-brainer”. The only question was where to go.

Lyon were interested – and offering Chelsea more money – but Pulisic was drawn to Milan. Firstly, there was the club’s incredible history. The Rossoneri may have fallen on hard times during the tail end of – and immediately after – Silvio Berlusconi’s reign, but they remain one of the biggest clubs in world football. Pulisic was also enamoured with the idea of playing at San Siro, La Scala del Calcio.

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Thirdly, and most importantly of all, some familiar faces were urging the versatile attacker to join them in Milan.

‘Bit like Eden Hazard’

Olivier Giroud started the San Siro sales pitch before the 2022-23 campaign had even concluded. He described his former Chelsea team-mate as a “happy kid, good vibes, always smiling”. It was about more than having another good character in the dressing room, though. The French forward wanted to be reunited with a player with whom he had flourished on the field.

“My understanding with him was top, a bit like Eden [Hazard], even if I played less with Christian,” Giroud told Morning Footy“He’s that kind of player who is very skilful. He can dribble, play the one-two. He knew how to use me on the pitch and vice versa.

“We had good times together and I hope he can get rid of the injuries, get better and get more consistency and more games, because he’s a very, very talented player… I think people here would love [if he came to Milan]. He would help us a lot.”

Agent Tomori

Giroud wasn’t the only former Blue trying to convince Pulisic to move to Milan either. As the winger’s father, Mark, revealed in an interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport, Fikayo Tomori also “helped Christian a lot” when it came to making up his mind where to go after Chelsea.

Tomori’s enthusiasm was also unsurprising. Unlike Giroud, he hadn’t played much alongside Pulisic – the centre-back had spent the majority of his time on Chelsea’s books out on loan – but he knew all about the benefits of swapping Stamford Bridge for San Siro.

Tomori remains inexplicably underrated by England manager Gareth Southgate – the fact that Harry Maguire will travel to Germany for this summer’s Euros ahead of him is a total farce – but he is hugely admired in Milan.

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The defender, who was born in Canada but raised in England by his Nigerian parents, initially arrived on loan in January 2021, but his stay was made permanent just six months later for £25 million ($32m). It proved an absolute bargain, with Tomori earning inclusion in the Serie A Team of the Year after playing a pivotal role in Milan ending their 11-year Scudetto drought in his first full season in Italy.

‘He said wonderful things about Milan’

It was inevitable, then, Tomori’s transformation not only served as a source of inspiration to Pulisic, but also Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Like Tomori, Loftus-Cheek had come through the youth-team ranks at Chelsea and he had shown serious signs of promise during Maurizio Sarri’s spell in charge. However, just like Pulisic, the midfielder’s progress was checked by the subsequent – and constant – upheaval at Stamford Bridge, as well as a succession of injuries. Tomori told them both, though, that they could kick-start their careers in Milan.

“When the situation started to evolve, I talked a lot with Fikayo,” Loftus-Cheek said. “He said wonderful things about the environment: the team, the city, the fans. Tomori assured me that I’d be at my best in Milan.” He wasn’t wrong.

Loftus-Cheek like Milinkovic-Savic!

Milan have had plenty of ups and downs this season. They spent a lot of money last summer (for a Serie A side) and not all of their transfers have worked out. Loftus-Cheek and Pulisic have both proven brilliant buys, though.

The former has actually surpassed Pioli’s expectations. “He played against us in the Champions League for Chelsea and was a box-to-box midfielder,” the Milan boss told Sky Sport Italia, “but did not seem to have the offensive quality and sufficient physicality to be such an important player for us in the attacking phase.”

Pioli quickly realised, though, that Loftus-Cheek was so good going forward – and such a potent aerial threat – that he could be deployed as an imposing No.10 in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. The positional switch has paid off spectacularly, with Loftus Cheek having racked up 10 goals in 35 appearances in all competitions, prompting Pioli to compare him to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, whom he trained at Lazio.

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‘I’ve learned a lot’

Pulisic is also arguably in the best form of his career, with the United States star having already been involved in 21 goals in all competitions, and 14 in Serie A, making this the most productive league campaign of his entire top-flight career.

As if that wasn’t satisfying enough, Saturday’s strike against Lecce means he’s now scored more times from open play this season than any player at Chelsea, who are languishing in mid-table in the Premier League and facing a second successive season without continental competition. Milan, meanwhile, are second in Serie A and looking forward to the first leg of a Europa League quarter-final against Roma on Thursday.

However, it’s not just his increased efficacy that makes the £20m ($25m) man one of the best signings made in Europe last summer. Pulisic also has the press purring because of his versatility, the fact that he always seems to deliver no matter where he’s played.

“To tell the truth, I never would have thought I’d feel so comfortable on the right,” he told CBS Sports. “I still prefer playing on the left. But, honestly, I’ve learned a lot – and my game has changed a lot.”

Just like Loftus-Cheek, he’s essentially reaping the rewards of regular first-team football. The pair have still had the odd issue but, as Pioli has proudly pointed out, they’re playing more minutes than anyone predicted.

“I’m definitely taking care of my body,” Pulisic told Fox Sports, “but it’s just been nice to have the opportunity to play consistently. When you’re constantly in and out of training, it can be difficult. Your body isn’t prepared for constant use, so when you come in and give a high-intensity performance, it can definitely be a problem. But this season I feel good and I feel confident. Your body gets used to playing, so it’s just been really helpful.”

Always listening has played a pretty big part too, though.

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