On Monday, Christian Pulisic celebrates his 25th birthday, a quarter of a century with plenty of mementos unique for an American playing the world’s most popular sport. He has struck the opening goal in an FA Cup final at Wembley and a goal in a German Klassiker, for Borussia Dortmund against Bayern Munich, in front of 80,000-odd at the Westfalen Stadium.
It was a Pulisic strike at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu that ushered Chelsea towards a Champions League final and guided the USA’s most celebrated 21st century footballer to claiming a winners’ medal in that competition.
This weekend, a career milestone every bit as resonant awaits Pulisic: A Milan derby at a full, expectant San Siro and the prospect, with a victory for Pulisic’s new employer AC Milan, that he wakes up on his birthday top of Serie A and even more feted by supporters thrilled to count ‘Captain America’, as he has been dubbed, as one of their own.
“It was love at first sight for me here,” Pulisic told Gazzetta dello Sport ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Inter, “especially when I saw the Milan fans. I’ve never experienced such passion.”
When Pulisic left Chelsea, part of the heavy turnover of hectic transfer activity at the London club during the summer, it was in search of a relaunch of a career that started precociously early, when he was scouted in Pennsylvania and signed by Dortmund at 16. Chelsea paid €64 million for him before he had turned 21, by which time he had already worn the skipper’s armband for his country.
But some badly timed injuries, seven changes of manager in between his signing for Chelsea and his leaving after four seasons there, meant the several apparent lift-offs of his career in London never quite gained the anticipated momentum.
By last May he was at a crossroads. There were a number of possible destinations, including Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon in France. But once Milan had a €20m bid accepted, Pulisic felt clear this was his preferred club, exchanging a Chelsea in a state of extreme flux, with no European football on their immediate agenda, for the club who claimed the Serie A title in 2022 and were in the semi-final of the European Cup only four months ago.
Milan’s nemeses then were their neighbours, and Saturday's meeting with Inter cannot help but look back at those May Euroderbies, six days apart. Milan are entitled to soften concerns at how rapidly Inter gained the ascendency in those contests - 2-0 up after 11 minutes of the first leg on the way to a 3-0 aggregate victory - with an analysis of how both club’s staffs have altered since.
Of the players who took part in those semis, 13 are no longer at either club, seven of Inter’s Champions League silver-medallists having moved on and six of Milan’s are now elsewhere.
Edin Dzeko, whose eighth-minute goal put Inter in charge of the semi, is extending his distinguished career at Fenerbahce. Andre Onana, whose goalkeeping excellence propelled Inter to their first Champions League final in 13 years, is at Manchester United.
And while Inter’s signing of France international striker Marcus Thuram, 26 and out of contract at Borussia Monchengladbach, represents an investment for the future, and the €30m spent on Benjamin Pavard, 27, should give them energy across different positions in the back line, the transfer strategy on the blue side of the city has leaned heavily towards veteran expertise.
Newcomers at Inter include Juan Cuadrado, 35 and released by Juventus. Alexis Sanchez is back for a second spell at the club; his fellow 34-year-old Marko Arnautovic has also returned, on loan at Inter as he first was as long ago as 2010.
Milan, by contrast, can speak of genuine rejuvenation in the summer that followed the retirement, at 41, of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Olivier Giroud, 36, remains first-choice at centre-forward but, on the evidence of Milan’s three wins out of three so far this season, he is benefiting from the youthful injection of fresh pace and improvisation around him.
Milan said farewell to Sandro Tonali, a significant loss, the Italy midfielder joining Newcastle United, who are at San Siro next week in the opening group game of the Champions League. But the €70m Tonali was sold for has been spread around the captures of Pulisic; Tijani Reijnders, the 24-year-old Dutch midfielder; winger Samuel Chukwueze, also 24; and the 23-year-old Swiss striker Noah Okafor.
Pulisic’s former Chelsea colleague Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 27, is also relishing the relaunch of his stop-start career as a Rossonero. Yunus Musah, the 20-year-old midfielder, joined from Valencia.
Musah, like Pulisic, made a strong impression for the USA team at the last World Cup, and some of the American-themed paraphernalia being carried into San Siro’s grandstands is a nod to him. But, so far, it’s mainly for Pulisic, the new star in the stripes of AC Milan.