The time has come for M'Baye Niang to become the player Milan has always wanted him to be.
Niang joined Milan from Caen in 2012 after scoring five goals and assisting three others in 30 matches for the French club. That first season, he saw significant time for Milan, despite being only 17 upon his arrival, appearing in 24 matches overall.
In the following two seasons, Niang only made 14 appearances for Milan. Unable to break through, he was sent on loan to Montpellier in 2014 and Genoa in 2015. In 26 matches combined between those loan spells, Niang scored 10 goals and assisted five. He showed glimpses of the player he can be.
Back at Milan to start the 2015-16 season, Niang's chance to impact the club was put on hold when he suffered a metatarsal fracture in early August. He was out 85 days. After a few days of training, Niang is ready to play. With Giacomo Bonaventura's suspension, Niang is expected to start Saturday when Milan takes on Atalanta.
This is a big moment for the young forward. Early in the season, following a formation change under Milan's new manager, there is an opportunity for Niang to make an impact and prove he belongs at a club trying to revive its identity as an Italian giant.
Niang is exactly the kind of player Milan needs to succeed. For several years, Milan tried to do things with older players available for cheap, on loan or completely free. It did not work. Great youth players were pushed aside, forgotten.
For many Milan youngsters, going on loan is the death of their chance to impact the club. With Niang, going to Genoa may have been the best thing for him. It gave him significant playing time and a chance to showcase is incredible potential.
The only concern for Milan is the foot injury he suffered this summer. He was showing potential in the preseason. Having to hang up the boots for three months is less than ideal, especially for a young player trying to make an impact.
But here he is, in what could be the perfect situation. He probably would not have fit well into a 4-3-1-2, the initial formation Sinisa Mihajlovic implemented at the club. The new 4-3-3 formation suits Niang, who will be able to get out wide and create opportunities from the wing. When the ball comes in from the right and Alessio Cerci is setting up the chances, he will be able to work inside and link up with Carlos Bacca in tight spaces.
With his speed and skill on the ball, Niang has the potential to be a nightmare for opponents. All he need is his chance. Now that it is here, if Niang can seize it, Mihajlovic may need to rework his midfield to fit both Niang and Bonaventura into the squad.
Imagine Bonaventura and Niang linking up down the left side of the field. They can play together for the first time this season Nov. 22 against Juventus. Stay tuned for fun times.
This is the make-or-break moment for Niang's Milan career. Expect him to take full advantage. If not, Milan has a tough decision to make next summer. Niang's current contract expires in 2017. If he is productive this season, renew him, because it is getting pretty irritating being constantly reminded of players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who—in case it has gone unnoticed by Milan fans—is killing it at Borussia Dortmund.
Niang has that kind of potential. It would be nice to see him show it off in a Milan kit.