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AC Milan set for European return in modest surroundings

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MILAN (Reuters) – A 20,000-capacity stadium with no roof and an old-fashioned running track around the pitch will be the setting when AC Milan make their European return after a three-year absence on Thursday.

The seven-times European champions have spent 190 million euros ($221.45 million) so far in the current transfer window and coach Vincenzo Montella says he intends to make them one of the world’s top five clubs.

But, as they enter the Europa League in the third qualifying round, Thursday’s match away to Romania’s Universitatea Craiova may be more of a reminder of how far they have fallen than a sign of possible success to come.

Craiova finished fifth in last season’s Liga 1 and their transfer spending – a mere 225,000 euros according to specialist

website – is a reminder of the harsh realities of European football away from the top clubs.

Thursday’s match will be staged at the Municipal stadium in Drobeta-Turnu Severin on the Serbian border, around 120km from their home base, as Craiova’s main stadium is being rebuilt.

Milan’s last European match was on March 14, 2014, when they were hammered 4-1 by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in a Champions League round-of-sixteen second leg match.

Recent years have been a tale of unsuccessful transfers and musical chairs in the coach’s hot seat, where Montella is the fifth incumbent since Massimiliano Allegri departed in 2014.

The last four seasons have seen them have finish eighth, ninth, seventh and sixth in Serie A, the last being just enough for them to squeeze into the Europa League.

Milan also made a habit of signing players past their peak and names such as Kaka, Fernando Torres, Michael Essien,

Kevin-Prince Boateng, Alessio Cerci, Mario Balotelli and Mattia Destro have all come and gone without making an impact.

But there has been a dramatic change of direction since former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi agreed to sell the club to a Chinese-led consortium in a 740 million-euro ($788 million) deal in April.

New signings have included Portuguese striker Andre Silva, Turkish midfielder and free-kick specialist Hakan Calhanoglu, Swiss leftback Ricardo Rodriguez and Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia.

The most impressive of all has been central defender Leonardo Bonucci, a key part of Juventus’ defence for the last seven seasons, although he and Biglia will not be available on Thursday.

It remains to be seen whether the Europa League, with its early start and additional travelling, will be a hindrance for Milan but so far Montella has no complaints.

“It’s been, and still is, a summer of dreams,” he said. “Maybe, the number of players we’ve bought and the expense that has been splashed on them has raised eyebrows but the fact is that the club are doing something extraordinary.”