Montella laughs off exit talk, but AC Milan must deliver at Sassuolo
With just one win in their last seven games in all competitions, AC Milan's season has deviated way off track as they fall further adrift of their rivals for a Champions League qualification spot. They don't look anywhere near capable of going all the way in the Europa League either.
Just 19 competitive games into the campaign, there has been little sign of sustained and consistent improvement under Vincenzo Montella, and the calls for change only seem to be getting louder.
In contrast, the Milan hierarchy have consistently backed him publicly and continue to stand by him for the time being, but there will surely be a breaking point even for them and it could come as soon as Sunday's encounter with Sassuolo.
Speaking to the media on Saturday, the 43-year-old reiterated that he's a fighter and laughed off La Gazzetta dello Sport's front-page depiction of him which suggested that this weekend is his "last chance."
After making such a positive impression last season to guide the Rossoneri into the Europa League, over £170 million on 10 new signings this summer hasn't resulted in the desired improvement to push on for bigger objectives.
Instead, Milan continue to languish in the background with talk centred around the top five of Napoli, Inter, Juventus, Lazio and Roma who continue to set a frightening pace, winning 44 games out of 53 between them.
That has undoubtedly complicated matters for Montella and his men further, as it ultimately adds additional pressure to start delivering to avoid that gap becoming borderline embarrassing.
So will defeat to Sassuolo spell the end for Milan's current coach? Given the unwavering support he has received from CEO Marco Fassone and sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli since the start of the season, it seems unlikely.
However, there have been subtle suggestions that things need to improve quickly as this evidently isn't where they envisaged Milan being at this stage of the season after such heavy investment in the squad.
With the international break to follow, it would seem like the most sensible time to act, as it would give a prospective new coach an opportunity to settle and prepare for a fortnight ahead of his first game in charge.
Nevertheless, the biggest issue with a potential change right now is whether or not the list of possible successors available would be much of an improvement on Montella. Various names have been linked with the post, but would any of them be a sensible replacement?
Primavera boss and club hero Gennaro Gattuso is reportedly a strong candidate, but what has he achieved in his managerial career thus far to suggest that he can take the job on and be successful even in the short term? Spells at Palermo, OFI Crete and Pisa say not much.
Milan have been down that road before with under-experienced club legends in Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi in the past and neither stint ended in positive fashion.
Former Serie A bosses such as Paulo Sousa and Walter Mazzarri have also been touted, but again, they're surely not long-term solutions. Perhaps it could make sense in a transitional phase, but that's likely to result in a major delay to Milan's plans of getting back to Europe's top table.
Carlo Ancelotti is currently out of work, but it's questionable as to whether he would want to step into such a tricky role at this stage of his career regardless of the affection that he will hold for his former club.
In turn, that leaves Antonio Conte as the most attractive option given his reported troubles at Chelsea in recent months. However, he still remains in a job and so there's little point second-guessing as to whether he could become available at the end of the season.
In an ideal world, things will click into place and Montella will get this team back on track and working in a positive direction.
Unfortunately for him, it's been far from ideal thus far and, aside from results being well below the level demanded of him and his players, many of the performances have been dire too. Milan still lack fluidity, cohesion and chemistry. If Milan looked like they were making progress and were on the verge of getting their house in order, perhaps Montella's future wouldn't be such a major talking point.
However, that hasn't been the case, and while the club has made no suggestion that it is make-or-break this weekend, there is an underlying fear for Montella that defeat could result in the end.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.