For AC Milan and the rest of Serie A, the home stretch has arrived surprisingly quickly—there are only 11 games and about 10 weeks left in the 2015-16 season.
Once the games are over, attention will turn to the UEFA European Championships in France. Once that tournament is complete, the traditional summer obsession will take center stage: transfer season.
In Italy, the wild rumors of the summer transfer window take up almost as many column inches as the moves that actually get done. When the games stop on the peninsula, the silly season reigns supreme.
For the clubs themselves, of course, it's a vital time. Players arrive that could make the difference between defeat and glory. Projects could be completed or—if a player decides he wants to leave—blown to pieces. Replacements are needed, depth is acquired, rosters are filled out or trimmed.
For Milan, this summer's window could be the most important they've gone through in years. After years of financial decline, poor management decisions and awful transfer moves, the Rossoneri are finally looking up.
Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic finally has the team in the right mindset, and last summer saw the club invest in the transfer market—and invest right—for the first time in years.
There were misses, of course. Vice-president Adriano Galliani grossly overspent for midfielder Andrea Bertolacci, but several of his other moves were fantastic.
The €30 million fee for striker Carlos Bacca was well spent, as was the €25 million they sent to AS Roma for center back Alessio Romagnoli, who could be the next in the long history of legendary Milan defenders.
What Milan needs to do in this window is find him a partner. There is one player that should be focused on in this effort: Empoli's Lorenzo Tonelli.
Given the inconsistency of the lineup around him, Romagnoli's season has been kind of incredible. Milan's roster is bloated, especially given their absence from European competition. There are five other center backs on the roster, and the 21-year-old has played with four of them.
The initial plan was to pair him with 20-year-old Rodrigo Ely, but that was scuppered when the youngster was sent off half an hour into the season.
Playing in the stead of a suspended Romagnoli at the beginning of October, Ely was overrun by Napoli and capped off his team's humiliating 4-0 loss by putting the ball into his own net. Now out with a broken foot, the Brazilian needs time to develop—if he's good enough at all.
Since that first game, Romagnoli has stood next to Cristian Zapata, Alex and Philippe Mexes.
Zapata started the season in terrible form but has unexpectedly raised his game in the last month. Currently injured, Mexes only really saw the field early in the Coppa Italia and for a few games in early November after Alex was knocked unconscious in a collision with goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
At 34 years old, Alex is on the last legs of his career but is still effective. He wasn't Mihajlovic's first choice for the opening of the season, but once he worked his way into the XI, he hasn't been dislodged. He can be beaten by pacy attackers, but more often than not if the ball is in front of him he doesn't let it get past.
But none of these players really project as a long-term option for a successful team. Alex is too old, Mexes is a combination of old and volatile and Zapata is too inconsistent.
That is where Tonelli comes in. There are no reports directly connecting the Rossoneri with the 26-year-old defender, but he is sure to garner the attention of a lot of major clubs this summer.
La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) linked him to Roma in January, and while no reliable sources have connected the player to his former coach Mauricio Sarri at Napoli, it wouldn't be a leap to see a reunion there either.
Given the jump they could make by giving Romagnoli a quality, long-term partner, Milan needs to be in the thick of the chase.
Tonelli is easily the best available player they could get for the role. Like Romagnoli, he is not a volume tackler—he's averaged 1.7 per game this year, per WhoScored.com—but he has an edge to his game that can make him a nice complement to the 21-year-old.
The 26-year-old has a mean streak that can be reminiscent of Giorgio Chiellini, as his seven bookings this year will attest. But he still displays enough intelligence and technique to average an impressive three interceptions per contest—more even than Romagnoli, who WhoScored clocks at 2.5.
Tonelli is also an impressive presence in the air, winning 2.9 aerial dues per game over the last two seasons and scoring a total of seven goals.
Tonelli has experience playing next to wunderkind Italian defenders having partnered with Daniele Rugani under Sarri a year ago. He himself is much more workmanlike, but is still skilled enough to be a top player on a top team.
Why bring in a big defender for a second year in a row? Milan does have other holes, and if reports from Gazzetta dello Sport are true (h/t Football Italia), Alex and Zapata are in line for contract renewals before their deals end in June.
There is still a severe lack of creativity in the midfield. Surely a player like Palermo's Franco Vazquez—who was linked to Milan by his own president Maurizio Zamparini in a Radio 2 interview in February (h/t ESPN FC)—would be a better target, wouldn't he?
Much depends on the tactics Mihajlovic will settle on next year. Vazquez's best position is as an attacking midfielder.
The Milan coach hasn't used a trequartista in months, instead settling on a 4-4-2 formation. Vazquez has dabbled as a right winger on the Italian national team, but if Mihajlovic decides to continue using that formation, he will have to learn to play somewhere new.
If Mihajlovic does change to accommodate a player like Vazquez, it may displace the one player that has given his team a creative spark—Giacomo Bonaventura. The former Atalanta man has played as a trequartista and as a left winger for Mihajlovic.
If Vazquez plays as an attacking midfielder, it would force Bonaventura further back in midfield. In spite of owner Silvio Berlusconi's insistence to Il Vero Milanista (h/t Football Italia) that the regista role is ideal for the player, he's not suited to playing in deeper roles in midfield.
Unless Mihajlovic finds a way to play them both to their full potential at the same time, the end result would be nulled—either Vazquez replaces Bonaventura as the team's sole creative outlet, or the latter remains that man.
Regardless of what might happen to the team's attack, finding Romagnoli a full-time partner is integral to the team's future.
Games may be won in front of your opponent's goal, but championships are won in front of your own. Having a top-of-the-line defense is absolutely critical to winning silverware. Juventus have won the last four scudetti—and are in pole position for a fifth—in large part because of their dominant back line. To call them the best defensive team in the world may not be much of an overstatement.
Milan's history is full of such defenses. The club has always leaned heavily on its back line. The likes of Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta, Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi grace the annals of its history.
The resurgence of the team under Berlusconi in the 1980s was built not on his flashy attacking buys, but on the rock-solid defense that Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello were able to rely on.
There's also a lot to be said for putting high-quality defensive players in front of the 17-year-old Donnarumma, whose development will be much smoother if he's not being peppered by shots in every game.
Romagnoli has the potential to join that rarefied list—but to do so, he's going to need a consistent, high-quality partner. Tonelli is the best option to fit that role. Even more than a creative attacker or a quality player to stiffen the midfield, he should be Milan's top priority over the summer.
If that position isn't addressed, Milan's rebuilding process will eventually be put into a holding pattern.