As AC Milan’s bus wound through Bologna, passing the porticos and red and orange buildings, the colour of the fat and tomato of the ragu that makes this city world famous, Christian Pulisic prepared for his debut in Serie A.

When the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara’s iconic brick tower came into view, the American could have been forgiven for thinking it was one of the fortresses that make the region of Emilia Romagna feel like one of those far-off lands in Game of Thrones.

Visiting teams have tried and failed to break its walls in Thiago Motta’s time in charge of Bologna. Since replacing the late Sinisa Mihajlovic in September last year, Bologna’s defensive record at home has been the best in Serie A along with that of Champions League finalists Inter.

(Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

Pulisic’s new coach, Stefano Pioli, found that out in April when a 1-1 draw almost cost Milan their place in this season’s Champions League. Some of the starters that day, Aster Vranckx, Charles De Ketelaere and Ante Rebic are no longer at the club. Others, Alexis Saelemaekers and Fode Ballo-Toure, are on the way out.

Pioli was rotating his team in between Milan’s Champions League quarter-final with Napoli. But the last visit to the Dall’Ara underlined Milan’s all too frequent struggles in breaking teams down — not to mention the shallowness of a squad which has been comprehensively overhauled this summer. Pulisic was bought in to help ensure that more frustrating draws in places like Bologna and other Italian cities where championship contenders can’t be seen to be dropping points are a thing of the past.

On a night sweatier than a slice of mortadella in one of those steaming Schiacciata sandwiches they sell around here, Pulisic could have found the going tough. Playing on the right in a 4-3-3, he has in effect replaced De Ketelaere, the €36million (£30.7m; $39.3m) present Milan gifted themselves for winning the league in 2022.

The Belgian underwhelmed in his first season and opinions on what to do with him this time around were split. Now on loan at Atalanta, De Ketelaere scored on his debut in a 2-0 win against Sassuolo in Reggio Emilia, a short drive down the road from Bologna. If Pulisic had stumbled on Monday night, it would have been a story in itself, not much ragu about nothing. A fickle online response along the lines of “Milan should never have let De Ketelaere go” was easy to predict.

But, on a night when Milan’s owner Gerry Cardinale had flown over to Italy especially to see the game, Pulisic didn’t allow that to happen.

Pulisic opens his Serie A account (Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images)

In this university town with its 11th-century red brick college, the 24-year-old turned out to be a model student for Pioli. He’s a quick learner and it was abundantly clear how much Pulisic has benefited from a full pre-season. During Milan’s tour of the U.S., Pulisic built up his fitness and reconnected with old Chelsea team-mates in a way that has facilitated his integration and effectiveness.

For instance, Ruben Loftus-Cheek plays on Pulisic’s side. The pair warmed up together and covered for each other on the pitch. But it was Pulisic’s ability to activate Olivier Giroud and vice-versa that got the Milan fans in the away end so hot under the collar they were shirtless before long.

First, an angled ball from Pulisic to the far post found fellow Milan debutante Tijjani Reijnders who cut it back for Giroud to open the scoring.

Then Pulisic introduced himself in the best way possible to his new league. There have already been some sumptuous goals in Serie A over the opening weekend. Antonio Candreva’s curler against Roma for Salernitana was good enough to be an installation at the next Venice Biennale. Nadir Zortea’s clincher at the Mapei Stadium was the kind of dart best fired from a bamboo shoot. One of the best, however, came in the last match of the first round.

Pulisic cut inside and exchanged a one-two with Giroud as he had done when he won a penalty against Monza in the Trofeo Silvio Berlusconi friendly a fortnight ago. Only this time, rather than carry on his run, Pulisic took aim and fired a shot past Lukasz Skorupski, silencing the Bologna ultras standing behind the Pole in the Curva Andrea Costa.

1 – Christian Pulisic is the fifth American to score a goal in Serie A and the first to do so on his league debut. Arrival.

— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) August 21, 2023

The Athletic reported earlier this week that 45 per cent of all Milan jerseys sold since Pulisic’s arrival have his name and number on the back. More will no doubt be sold in the wake of a debut that more than delivered. Which isn’t to say it was perfect.



Pulisic in Milan - it’s make or break

Bologna almost scored the quickest goal of the weekend when Charalampos Lykogiannis burst down Pulisic’s side and forced Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan to tip a shot destined for the top corner onto the bar. The lively Lewis Ferguson and direct Dan Ndoye tried to create overloads on the same flank, causing Milan problems. But Maignan, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world when fit, was up to whatever came his way and Milan boarded the bus back to Lombardy with a 2-0 win.

(Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images)

Withdrawn by Pioli with a quarter of an hour to spare, Pulisic couldn’t have wished for a better start in Italy. “I knew Pulisic was a talent when I was on the phone trying to convince him to join us,” said Pioli.

“I was sure we’d signed a player of great quality. He’s very versatile. He allows us to give other players a breather. He can play very well in Leao’s place on the left or off the striker.”

Pulisic was delighted with how his debut had gone. “For sure, I’m very emotional, it was great to score a goal so early on my debut, great to help the team win and get a clean sheet. It was just the perfect night,” he said after the game.

There’s a song they play at the Dall’Ara, typically when Bologna win, by the city’s greatest songwriter Lucio Dalla. It’s called L’anno che verrà. The year to come. These may still be early days for Pulisc in Italy but, on the basis of his showing in Bologna, the year to come could be a very good one for him.

(Top photo: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)