Will the clock strike midnight before AC Milan's rejuvenation project can come to fruition?

Vincenzo Montanella, right, and Andre Silva are trying to guide AC Milan back to the Italian summit. (Reuters)
Vincenzo Montanella, right, and Andre Silva are trying to guide AC Milan back to the Italian summit. (Reuters)

The world of sport, and especially the world of soccer, loves instantaneous referendums.

AC Milan was one of the game’s true giants for decades, with its seven continental championships trailing only Real Madrid, and recent seasons have not lived up to that standard. So a Chinese ownership consortium executed a takeover this past summer, ousting the stalled leadership of Silvio Berlusconi and pouring gobs of money into the transfer market to restore a winner to Milan’s hungry, far-flung fan base.

The first true referendum on that rejuvenation came Saturday, when Milan hosted five-time reigning Serie A champion Juventus at the San Siro. And while the Rossoneri lost 2-0 thanks to a brace by Gonzalo Higuain, there were stretches to feel proud about.

While Juventus had a majority of the possession, Milan did anything but lay flat, pressuring the ball when the visitors had it and composing several good chances in the offensive third. In fact, Milan might be considered unlucky to have not scored, with the best chance coming right before halftime. New signing Hakan Çalhanoğlu flicked an inch-perfect header off a cross to loan signing Nikola Kalinic, whose first touch was a tad heavy but still should’ve led to a goal:

In all, Milan’s starting lineup had a median age of 25 and featured just two players who were with the club before 2015. And it would’ve been one if former Juve center back Leonardo Bonucci, last summer’s signature capture, hadn’t become the first player in Serie A history to be red carded thanks to the Video Assistant Referee system a few days ago.

So there’s no shame in dropping all three points against Juventus, which has been the Champions League runner-up two of the past three seasons. It’s one of the best sides in the world, with a structured and talented squad that’s been great for a long time.

Milan’s flashes of potential, though, won’t be worth much if the reboot shuts down before it can truly begin. To say so isn’t an indictment of any of the signings the club has made, rather a statement of the resources behind them.

Clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have made barrelfire ascensions up the rungs of world soccer with new ownership groups investing their limitless sums of cash. But Milan’s new ownership, led by Yonghong Li, is almost certainly limited.

Whispers of Li and his cohorts biting off more than they can chew started even before the takeover, and their search for new investors to refinance the club and share the debt this fall has all but confirmed those rumors.

So what would happen if there’s a very real and very immediate ceiling to the spending? For starters, club executive Marco Fassone has admitted players like Bonucci and prized starlet Andre Silva will have to be sold if Milan fails to make the Champions League this season and receive the monetary boost that comes with it.

Milan currently sits eighth in the table, 12 points off co-leading Juventus and Napoli. After four wins in five matches to start the league campaign, Milan has picked up just four of a possible 18 points since late September.

The early fixtures have been littered with Italy’s upper crust, including Juve, Roma, Internazionale and Lazio, which means manager Vincenzo Montanella has a ton of work to do already to guide Milan into the top four. That will include finding a consistent goal-scorer, as Silva leads the team with five goals across all competitions, but none in Serie A.

Juventus doesn’t have that problem, with Higuain and Dybala pairing to lead one of Europe’s most prolific attacks. Higuain reached 100 goals for his Serie A career on Saturday, and his opener featured a perfect first touch and a hit as clean as one could hope for:

The second goal was partly good fortune but still a terrific finish in a tight window:

Players of that caliber make the difference in challenging for major trophies, and they’re available to the richest clubs. Milan is in that stratosphere, recently valued by Forbes as the 13th most valuable club in the world at $802 million.

But there’s a difference between what you would pay to buy a club and how much you can spend on it once it’s actually acquired. That’s the conundrum Milan finds itself in, and that, more than the result from Saturday or any other match this season, will be the true referendum on Milan’s plans to rejoin the world’s elite.

Joey Gulino is the editor of FC Yahoo and moonlights as a writer. Follow him on Twitter at @JGulinoYahoo.