Plenty of money was spent during the January transfer window, with established players like Coutinho, Van Dijk, Sanchez, Aubameyang and Laporte all making moves, but in many ways the most eye catching deal of all was a record breaking transfer involving a 16 year-old with fewer than 10 top flight appearances.

Pietro Pellegri left Genoa to join French Champions Monaco for a fee believed to be around 20 million Euros, becoming the most expensive 16 year-old of all time.

The powerful striker first made headlines in December 2016 when he became the joint youngest player to feature in Serie A at the age of 15 years and 280 days. Pellegri scored his first senior goal at the end of that season, becoming the first player born in the 21st Century to score in Serie A.

Leaving his hometown club at such a tender age is a gamble, but Monaco have a fine track record with young forwards and Pellegri will be hoping the move can take his game to the next level in the way it did for fellow youngsters Anthony Martial and Kylian Mbappé who both used their time in the Principality to announce themselves on the World stage.

Physically imposing for his age, Pellegri has earned comparisons to his idol Zlatan Ibrahimović with the way he can bully defenders with his strength and power, and the youngster will be able to learn from one of the best goalscorers around with Radamel Falcao as his captain and teammate.

Fellow Italian Marco Verratti moved to Ligue 1 at an early age and has since established himself as a star at Paris Saint-Germain and a key member of the Italian National Team. Pellegri will be hoping his move to the Stade Louis II can have a similar transformative effect on his career.







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The France under-19s managed to go one better than their senior counterparts last week, by winning the European Championships.

Ludovic Batelli’s youngsters trounced Italy 4-0 in the final, claiming a third European title at this level for France. In doing so, they demonstrated that there is plenty more young talent coming through for Les Bleus, in addition to the likes of Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembélé, who have all made their mark in senior football recently.

But France were not the only ones showcasing some outstanding prospects during the tournament in Germany. There were plenty of young players thriving under the spotlight, and marking themselves out as ones to watch for the future. Here are five of the best players from the under-19 Euros who you should be keeping a close eye on in the near future:

Jean-Kévin Augustin (France)

The 19-year-old Paris Saint Germain striker was in phenomenal form throughout the tournament, and finished as the competition’s highest scorer, with a record-equalling tally of six goals from five games.

And it was Jean-Kévin Augustin who got the ball rolling in the final by netting a spectacular and decisive opening goal against Italy. The Italians had started the game well, and were looking to assert their dominance, only for Augustin to pick the ball up 30 yards from goal, burst through the centre of the opponents’ defence and finish coolly.

The teenager made 13 Ligue 1 appearances for PSG last season, and he could be set to add to that number under new manager Unai Emery in the upcoming campaign.

Kylian Mbappé (France)

Kylian Mbappé formed a deadly strike partnership with Augustin in the French attack, as the two men between them netted all of their side’s eight goals in the group stage.

The Monaco striker’s best performance came during the semi-final against Portugal, where he assisted the first goal for Ludovic Blas and scored the next two himself, to seal a 3-1 victory. The speedy striker also demonstrated his incredible technique with one of the most outrageous pieces of skill in the final: picking the ball up on the right touchline, Mpabbé flicked the ball over the head of his marker with the outside of his right foot, before swinging in a dangerous cross that eventually led to France’s fourth goal.

Despite being only 17 years old, Mbappé already has 11 Ligue 1 appearances under his belt, and his name will undoubtedly have been marked down in the notebooks of scouts from across the Continent.

Manuel Locatelli (Italy)

AC Milan midfielder Manuel Locatelli was the heartbeat of the Italy midfield, orchestrating his side’s attacks and conducting the tempo of the action, as the Italians made it all the way to the final before eventually being outclassed by France.

The highlight of Locatelli’s campaign was the stunning free-kick he scored against Austria in the group stage.

The 18-year-old made his Serie A debut for Milan in April, and made his first senior start against Roma on the final day of last season.

Philipp Ochs (Germany)

Hoffenheim winger Philipp Ochs produced a dazzling display when bagging a hat-trick against Portugal in the group stage, although it wasn’t enough to prevent Germany from losing 4-3.

The 18-year-old possesses great speed, superb technique and outstanding dribbling skills.

Having made five Bundesliga appearances to date, Ochs is knocking on the door of a regular place in Die Kraichgauer’s first-team. And Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann will surely appreciate the benefit of giving opportunities to young players, as the 29-year-old is the youngest manager in Bundesliga history.

Dominic Solanke (England)

Chelsea striker Dominic Solanke formed a great understanding with strike partner Isaiah Brown at the tournament, as he helped himself to group stage goals against France and the Netherlands.

Solanke was a key player for the Three Lions as they became the only team to record a victory over France on their run to the semi-final, before losing 2-1 to Italy.

Solanke spent last season on loan with Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie. The 18-year-old scored seven goals in the Dutch top division, and will be hoping to make the breakthrough at Stamford Bridge next season under new manager Antonio Conte.

About the author – Ryan Baldi

Ryan is a Midlands based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 years old whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ printed on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications. Ryan’s musings on European football can be found here.

Twitter:  @RyanBaldiEFB


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Italy delivered the first truly stunning performance of Euro 2016, upsetting the odds to secure a well-worked 2-0 victory over Belgium on Group E’s opening night. Few, including Italian pundits and fans, saw the result coming. Antonio Conte had selected an ageing squad with little by way of star names but, despite widespread criticism of his squad choices, his tactics were perfect.

He then led the Azzurri to another win, this time over Sweden in their second game, to ensure progress as group winners. A much changed team lost to Ireland in the final group game. The Azzurri then outclassed Spain in the last sixteen before losing to World Champions Germany on penalties.

Italy’s performance in this summer’s championships has been better than expected, Conte is no longer the national team head coach; now that Italy’s tournament is over, he will move to London to take charge of Chelsea. His replacement will be Giampiero Ventura.

The 68-year-old’s name is not one that many outside of Italy will recognise, but he is hugely experienced and highly thought of in his home country. In short, there are plenty of reasons for the Azzurri to be excited about the future under Ventura’s auspices.

Tactical continuity in the post-Conte era

Perhaps the primary positive regarding Ventura’s appointment is that he is likely to build on a number of the tactical themes laid down by Conte. This is because the two coaches, whilst having vastly different levels of experience, are of a similar mindset.

Ventura, like Conte, is flexible when it comes to the basic shape he opts to utilise, something former Azzurri boss Cesare Prandelli commented on last October in an interview with Calciomercato, saying: “I love those coaches who can adapt their principles to the qualities of the players they have at their disposal, and it’s why I believe that the best coach in Italy today is Giampiero Ventura.”

Ventura also has similar preferences to the incumbent Italy coach; both men have experimented with a rather unique 4-2-4 shape in the past, but have settled more recently on the 3-5-2. This is the system in which Italy have operated at Euro 2016, and it is the system Ventura has used to good effect with Torino in the past three seasons.

He has organised the Granata side to circulate the ball effectively in the build-up between the three defenders and one defensive midfielder, while the outer central midfielders push up to support attacks as well as to apply pressure to opposition full-backs. The two wing-backs have often included one on the opposite side to their favoured foot, allowing them to drive inward and create overloads, while up front Ventura has tended to opt for one physical centre forward to lead the line, while another striker whirs behind and beyond.

This setup is extremely similar to that which Conte has used with Italy this summer. Consequently, the players should be well versed in Ventura’s principal tactical layout when he takes charge later this year.

Azzurri’s exciting future

One aspect of Ventura’s management that will particularly excite Italian football fans is his proclivity for blooding young players and giving opportunities to the untested. With Torino he was responsible for rejuvenating the careers of Matteo Darmian, Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile, all of whom went on to earn call-ups to the Azzurri and moves to Manchester United, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund respectively.

He also worked wonders to turn around Kamil Glik’s fortunes; the Pole led his country’s defensive line expertly at Euro 2016. Additionally, the likes of Davide Zappacosta and Marco Benassi earned call-ups to Italy’s pre-Euro training camp having developed under Ventura’s tutelage.

This faith in youngsters and undervalued players is something that should allow the former Torino coach to instigate a change in Italy’s selection policy. While Conte has been conservative with his call-ups, Ventura may begin to mine the Azzurri’s youthful riches that Conte claims do not exist.

That talent pool includes 17-year-old Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 21-year-old centre-backs Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli, 24-year-old regista Jorginho and 21-year-old forward Domenico Berardi, among others.

How Ventura’s Italy might line up at the 2018 World Cup

With such promise at his disposal, it is enticing to consider who may start for Italy should they qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia under Ventura’s guidance. He is known for his adaptability, which means that, while the 3-5-2 is popular right now, he could be open to changing that in order to maximise the qualities of his players.

Conte has occasionally opted for a 4-3-3 shape during his stint in charge and Ventura would be wise to do the same; this system allows Italy to make use of the high quantity of good wingers and inside forwards available at present.

38-year-old goalkeeping icon Gianluigi Buffon has confirmed that he will retire after the 2018 World Cup, meaning he is likely to keep his place between the sticks. In front of him, time is running out for the 35-year-old Andrea Barzagli and 32-year-old Giorgio Chiellini, though the latter could continue his partnership with Leonardo Bonucci going forward, with Rugani and Romagnoli as able deputies.

Alessandro Florenzi is, at 25 years old, maturing into a fine attack-minded full-back. His energy, tenacity and crossing capability make him a good long-term option for the right-back spot, though he will face competition from Darmian, who is only one year older. The Manchester United man could also compete for the left-back berth, though Bologna’s 22-year-old Adam Masina has shown real potential in this position.

Marco Verratti may have missed out on Euro 2016 through injury but at 23 he remains integral to his country’s footballing future, while Claudio Marchisio, still only 30, can also play a part going forward. Jorginho can be the deep-lying playmaker Italy are in need of as Andrea Pirlo settles into his late-30s, perhaps entertaining thoughts of retirement, while Benassi and Juventus’ Stefano Sturaro could inject dynamism in midfield.

On either side of the front three, Ventura will have a wealth of options to pick from, including Berardi, Federico Bernardeschi, Lorenzo Insigne, Stephan El Shaarawy and Giacomo Bonaventura. All are under the age of 26. And, up front, he may choose to call on Andrea Belotti, with the 22-year-old showing mobility, positional awareness and improved finishing in his debut season with Torino.

On the back of some good opening displays at Euro 2016, Italy’s present situation is good. But, with Ventura in charge and a talented crop of young stars making their way through the ranks, the future could be exceptional.

About the author – Blair Newman

Blair is a freelance football writer with experience of working for some well known publications, including FourFourTwo, Squawka and Bleacher Report. His main passions are Italian football and football tactics, and he also takes a keen interest in major European leagues and international football in general.

twitter: @TheBlairNewman


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Irish Passion

Roy Keane’s impassioned plea appeared to work it’s magic in stoking the fires in his player’s bellies. A performance full of desire and unwavering commitment saw Ireland set up a date against the heavily favoured home nation of France.

In a tense final 10 minutes, Martin O’Neills side could have been forgiven for thinking they had blown their chances when Wes Hoolahan went clean through only to tamely pass the ball into the goalkeeper’s arms. However he made up for it a few minutes later by supplying a sublime cross onto the head of Robbie Brady who directed the ball into the back of the Italian goal.

Cue wild celebrations from the Irish supporters, who may I add seem to have lifted the whole spirit in France, particularly in light of the behavior shown from some of the other nations fans. They have gone from serenading a French woman to singing lullabies to a baby on a crowded train. As one bar owner in Paris put it , “Paris has been Morose since last year’s attacks. It does us good to see such happy people”.

What makes their performance even more impressive, was the fact that they were able pick themselves up from the 3-0 drubbing they suffered at the hands of Belgium. Many teams would have wilted under the pressure, particularly coming up against a team like Italy who had already demonstrated their tournament credentials by winning their two opening fixtures without conceding a goal.

The fact that hard man Keane was almost reduced to tears shows just how big a result this was for Ireland. However he did get his act together when he celebrated by strangling the goalscoring hero Robbie Brady.

On paper, the fixture against France looks like a mismatch, particularly when they can showcase talents like Pogba, Griezmann, Payet, Martial and Coman, to name but a few. However you won’t see a team perform with more passion than the Irish. And as the old saying goes, if they get a bit of ‘the luck of the Irish’ then who knows what could happen.

It’s onwards and upwards now for Ireland. Let just hope that last night’s heroics hasn’t taken too much out of the team and that they can produce a similar level performance against France at the stade des lumières in Lyon next Sunday.

About the author – Kevin Kirwan

Kevin has been playing Soccer Manager Worlds for 10 years and has an keen interest in the Premier League. He supports Manchester United and hopes that Mourinho can bring the glory days back to Old Trafford.



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Serie A has, in recent times, become an increasingly multinational league. For the first time in the league’s history, the 2015-16 season saw a match without Italian players in the starting lineups when Inter Milan took on Udinese in April. It comes as no surprise then that, despite the growth of this summer’s European Championships to accommodate 24 teams, over half of the nations involved will feature a player based in Italy.

Here we take a look at six Serie A players who are set to break out on the international stage for the first time at Euro 2016.

Federico Bernardeschi (Italy)

For the first six months of last season, Fiorentina were not only one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams to watch in Serie A, but were considered contenders for the Scudetto. Under Paulo Sousa’s auspices the Viola played beautiful passing football based on strong combination play and, while their title hopes ultimately proved optimistic, hope for the future was ensured through the individual displays of Federico Bernardeschi.

The 22-year-old showcased extraordinary tactical intelligence and versatility, playing in attacking midfield, on the wing and at both left and right wing-back, all while dazzling with his flitting dribbling skills. A fluid runner on the ball with a refined left foot, Bernardeschi made his Italy debut earlier this year and, in an Azzurri side bereft of top class strike options, his cutting movement and creativity could prove crucial to unlocking opposition defences.

Oscar Hiljemark (Sweden)

After failing to make much of an impact in Dutch football with PSV Eindhoven, Oscar Hiljemark joined Sicilian side Palermo for the relatively small fee of £1.88 million last summer. He arrived having just captained Sweden to 2015 European Under-21 Championship victory and wasted no time establishing himself with the Rosanero.

The 23-year-old central midfielder showed a good engine and a willingness to drive forward and support attacks, scoring four goals and assisting five while appearing in every single one of Palermo’s 38 Serie A fixtures. That form prompted Sweden manager Erik Hamren to recall the player into the national team fold, where he has retained his place for Euro 2016. In a team that relies heavily on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s link-up play, Hiljemark’s runs behind opposition lines could come in handy.

Elseid Hysaj (Albania)

It’s fair to say that most spectators expect Albania to be one of this summer’s primary whipping boys, with Gianni De Biasi’s side drawn in a tough group alongside hosts France, as well as Switzerland and Romania. However, the quality of the Albanian squad is not to be dismissed out of hand; they have some highly gifted players in their ranks, and Elseid Hysaj is arguably the best of the lot.

The 22-year-old arrived at Napoli last summer as he followed coach Maurizio Sarri from Empoli. And, early in the campaign, it became clear that he would be occupying the team’s right-back position ahead of the more experienced Cristian Maggio. A solid defensive full-back and a direct runner in the attacking phase, Hysaj has since emerged as one of the best young players in the league, and his performances this summer could go a long way to deciding whether Albania’s defence holds up to the rigorous scrutiny of a major international finals.

Ciprian Tatarusanu (Romania)

When Norberto Neto departed for Juventus last summer, Fiorentina already had a more than adequate goalkeeping replacement lined up in Ciprian Tatarusanu. The towering 6’6” Romanian had alternated with Neto the previous season and took no time adjusting to being a first team regular in 2015-16. With good reactions and strong shot-stopping combined with a composed presence on the ball, he was a perfect fit for Paulo Sousa’s style of play, building out from the back.

The 30-year-old has never been to an international tournament before, but he is integral to Romania’s chances of surprising at Euro 2016; he kept seven clean sheets in qualification and was named his country’s footballer of the year in 2015. Building on a good season at club level, Tatarusanu could use this summer as a stepping stone to bigger things late in his career.

Sime Vrsaljko (Croatia)

Sassuolo’s sixth-place Serie A finish and subsequent qualification for next season’s Europa League was one of the main storylines in a thrilling 2015-16 campaign, and Sime Vrsaljko was one of the main protagonists in its development. The Croatian right-back was in superb form for the Neroverdi, encompassing all that is expected of the modern full-back.

Wearing his team’s number 11 shirt, his attacking surges, overlapping and underlapping, dribbling and crossing were key components in Sassuolo’s attacking play, and as a result the likes of Napoli and Liverpool have been linked with the 24-year-old. With captain Darijo Srna set to start at right-back for Croatia this summer, Vrsaljko will have to bide his time or take up the left-back role, but either way it’s hard to imagine him not making a mark on this summer’s tournament.

Piotr Zielinski (Poland)

After breaking into Udinese’s first team as a teenager several years ago, Piotr Zielinski seemed to struggle under the weight of expectation that comes with being a highly rated, and sought after, prospect. That was until the 2015-16 season, where he shone at Empoli under the watchful eye of Swiss coach Marco Giampaolo.

Playing on the right of a diamond midfield, the 22-year-old’s energy, dynamism and creativity were vital to his team’s ability to build good possession and progress the ball into attacking areas. His form with the Tuscan club deservedly led to a recall into the Poland national team who, under Adam Nawalka, qualified for Euro 2016 from a tough group featuring Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. The Poles are seen as one of the dark horses for this summer’s tournament, and Zielinski could be their breakout star.

About the author – Blair Newman

Blair a freelance football writer with experience of working for some well-known publications, including FourFourTwo, Squawka and Bleacher Report. His main passions are Italian football and football tactics, and he also takes a keen interest in the major European leagues and international football in general.

twitter: @TheBlairNewman


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Has it really been four years since we watched Spain, basking in the glory of a majestic Xavi Hernandez, romp their way to European Championship glory?

Alas, in the intervening time Europe has lost Xavi and Spain’s stock has plummeted. The finals in France will, this year, be ruled by the next generation of stars; whether any of them go on to define the tournament as the Catalonian maestro did remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure, though: there will be superstars unearthed at this tournament. We have taken a stab at predicting the kids who might just do it on the biggest stage this summer.

Federico Bernadeschi (Italy)

Federico Bernadeschi is very quickly becoming respected as one of Italy’s premium young talents. Though national coach Antonio Conte has seemed somewhat reluctant to flood the Azzurri with too many young players at once during his waning reign, Italy are beginning to realise that they have a wealth of talent at their disposal, with Bernadeschi’s name climbing rapidly towards the top of that list.

The Fiorentina forward is a creator at heart, which could stand him in good stead when competing for a place in Italy’s starting eleven this summer. Though the Azzurri’s current talent pool is seemingly limitless and they possess a huge number of gifted strikers capable of putting the ball in the back of the net – Lorenzo Insigne, Graziano Pelle, Simone Zaza, Stephan El Sharaawy and Eder could all be competing for a starting berth in France – they do lack a creative force capable of carving out chances in the first place.

That’s where Bernadeschi could make his mark. The 21-year-old displays remarkable ball retention and a consistent and deadly eye for a killer pass every week in Serie A, meaning he could play the role of provider alongside any of Italy’s talented goal-scorers.

Though his involvement in Italy’s friendly drubbing by Germany – during which Conte experimented with a young front three – might have hurt his chances of initially starting in the tournament proper, Bernadeschi will no doubt be knocking on the next Chelsea manager’s door if the Azzurri find themselves struggling to break down defences as the competition progresses.

Victor Lindelof (Sweden)

Unlike many of the players on this list, Victor Lindelof is almost guaranteed to start in the tournament. The 21-year-old has recently burst onto the scene to cement himself as one of Sweden’s first-choice defenders, and it would be a surprise not to see him feature heavily in their campaign.

Lindelof’s rise to national side regular has been facilitated by his recent run in Benfica’s first team. The Portuguese side are one of Europe’s form teams right now, and the Swedish centre-half has been resplendent at the heart of their defence.

Accustomed to playing as a defensive midfielder as well as at the back, Lindelof’s ball-playing abilities are are the heart of what makes him so attractive as a centre-half. He’s also strong, great in the air and very quick, meaning his passing ability doesn’t overshadow his grasp of the basics of defending. He also possesses excellent technique, making him a real threat from set-pieces; so if Sweden don’t hit Zlatan’s head with the first ball, they have an able alternative to aim for.

Though Lindelof has only very recently made his debut for Sweden, if he finishes the season with Benfica as strongly as his current performances suggest, we could be seeing a lot of him in France.

Viktor Kovalenko (Ukraine)

Kovalenko rose to fame last year after claiming the Golden Boot at the U-20 World Cup; surprising for an attacking midfielder whose usual contribution comes in the creation of goals, rather than in the scoring of them.

That’s not to say the Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder is a stranger in front of goal. In the mould of Belgium’s uber-talented Kevin De Bruyne, Kovalenko’s ability to finish off moves as well as start them means he’s rocketing into Ukrainian first-team plans and is highly likely to feature at the tournament.

Kovalenko is a master of the chipped through-ball, and has the rare ability to seemingly spot runs before they’re even made; a trait made famous by Spain’s David Silva. If he’s given a chance to prove his worth in France, then potential link-ups with compatriots Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka could make Ukraine a real force going forward.

About the Author – Tom Curren

Writer & freelancer. Author & editor of, a website dedicated to comprehensively profiling those whom the mainstream football media might miss.

twitter: @tomocurr


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“An embrace from the best goalkeeper in the world,” Milan custodian Gianluigi Donnarumma wrote on Facebook after he swapped shirts with opposite number Gianluigi Buffon at the end of his side’s 1-0 defeat to Juventus in Serie A on Saturday evening. “What an emotion.”

It must have been a rather surreal moment for both men. Just a few short years ago, Donnarumma would have been watching Buffon’s performances on television, hoping that one day he may meet his hero, even if only as a fan. Since then, of course, the kid from the Bay of Naples has become a professional goalkeeper himself, handed his first-team debut by Milan manager Sinisa Mihajlovic at the tender age of 16 in last month’s encounter with Sassuolo at San Siro.

For Buffon, too, it must have been strange to face a keeper less than half his age. The Juventus man made his debut for Parma in November 1995, three-and-a-quarter years before Donnarumma was even born.

It was Buffon who came out on top at Juventus Stadium, the Bianconeri edging out Milan to climb up to sixth in the table and keep their title hopes alive. Donnarumma, though, turned in another impressive performance that was full of confidence and maturity: his handling was excellent and he never looked flustered with the ball at his feet, while he also proved adept at coming off his line and snuffing out danger when the situation called for it.

Crosses were claimed and corners punched clear, his 6ft 5in frame allowing the teenager to dominate his penalty area and relieve pressure on a backline that has looked extremely nervy at times this term; indeed, after 13 matches only Carpi, Frosinone, Verona, Sampdoria, Torino, Empoli and Lazio have conceded more goals than the Rossoneri, with Milan possessing the second-worst defensive record before Donnarumma’s introduction to the starting line-up last month.

Although some claimed he should have done better to prevent Paulo Dybala’s winner, the fierce effort from only seven yards out would have been difficult for even the most seasoned shot-stopper to keep out.

The display was merely a continuation of Donnarumma’s positive start to his senior career. He has kept two clean sheets and conceded only three goals in five games, demonstrating a confidence and assuredness that belies his tender years.

“He is a polite and serious kid, but he has no fear,” Milan youth coach and former midfielder Christian Brocchi said earlier this month. “He has always been a huge Milan fan; he dreams of being Milan goalkeeper for the next 15 years. This dream is very likely to come true.”

It was a major call for Mihajlovic to bring Donnarumma into the team to replace Diego Lopez – who was restricting Iker Casillas to a place on the substitutes’ bench at Real Madrid not too long ago – but, for now, it looks to be paying off. There is still room for improvement for the 16-year-old, but there is hope in Italy that the country has finally found the much-searched-for ‘heir to Buffon’.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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Up 2-1 and with a foot in the door of qualifying for the European Championship next summer, he knew his side could not throw away this opportunity. Indeed, a win in his team’s last two matches would be enough to qualify.

He wanted to finish the job that night however.

With an interception and powerful strike by Matteo Darmian to make it 3-1 over Azerbaijan, Antonio Conte exulted like a madman, embracing his coaching staff in a huddle. Italy were through to Euro 2016. The hard part was over.

Firstly, credit has to be given to the coach for extending the Azzurri’s unbeaten record to 50 qualifying matches, which incredibly stretches back to 2006.

But when the emotional high of qualifying fades away, one can begin to analyse the past year under the ex-Juventus boss with a clear mind.

What has worried Azzurri supporters more than anything else are the tactics, selections and decisions made by Conte during the past year and his stubbornness to implement change.

Drawn in a group that included Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and Malta, Italy finished first with 24 points.

At first glance, the country’s results seem overwhelmingly positive. However, the manner in which the matches were won has sparked some initial cause for concern among supporters.

Even with formation changes from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 and now 4-4-2/4-2-4, dull, unimaginative play has characterised this current Italy side and watching their fixtures has become something of a chore.

Their style of play has lacked invention and excitement going forward and Italy have had to grind out results in nearly every game, yet to properly convince the Azzurri faithful.

A big issue Conte has failed to address is the glaring lack of creativity in attack for the Azzurri. Preferring substance over style, chances have been hard to come by and his side have been short of a couple of players to spark the attack while also linking midfield.

Over the past year creative player types like Lorenzo Insigne and Franco Vazquez have been shoved aside in place of more physical figures to Conte’s liking, without a clear indication why.

With his side struggling to create chances in open play, uninspiring displays have become the norm.

Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza started in the first four of five qualifiers but now Graziano Pelle and Eder seem to have won the coach over, with Antonio Candreva and Stephan El Shaarawy also finding regular minutes under the 46-year-old.

Having found pairings to his liking, Conte has been stubborn to change, and has not done enough to shuffle a stale attack that is lacking invention and unpredictability.

While narrowly getting by teams of lower calibre may have been alright in the qualifying phase, the question begs what will happen come Euro 2016 when Italy face sides that will allow just a couple of chances per game such as Spain, Germany or host nation France?

Although Conte has cited the small pool of Italians available for national team selection, he has failed to call upon the country’s best players and properly integrate new attacking talent in his starting XI.

Regarding player selection, supporters have been frustrated and puzzled by the lack of consistency in Conte’s word. While the 46-year-old has claimed playing time remains the most important factor when making decisions, he has called up various players that are not recording regular minutes for their clubs and or aren’t in great form to begin with.

Additionally, various talented players that have found less minutes at their clubs won’t make Conte’s squad, using his ruling to justify their absence.

The result? It has become clear the 46-year-old seems to bend his rule for some players but not others. He’s made it clear who his favourites are while also preferring players who will be run into the ground to make up for their lower levels of skill.

In Conte’s recent call-ups for friendlies against Belgium and Romania, many in-form players have been surprisingly excluded while the 46-year-old also missed the opportunity to try out emerging talents. These include Riccardo Saponara, Jorginho, Daniele Baselli, Davide Zappacosta, and Vazquez.

These next two matches serve the primary purpose of assessing different players but unfortunately out-of-form figures in Candreva, Mattia De Sciglio, Alessio Cerci, and Simone Zaza have been called up instead.

Azzurri fans can only hope Conte can construct a starting XI over the next few months with improved attacking play and hungry new faces.

Fortunately, we’re many months away from the final deadline. All we can do is wait and see.

About the author – Matthew Amalfitano

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.

twitter: _MattFootball


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AC Milan patron Silvio Berlusconi has stated more than once over the past couple of years of his desire for his side to be filled with a majority of Italian players.

In an effort to build for the future by utilising the domestic league’s Italians while also nurturing players through their own academy, Milan are looking to form an identity in the present day after consecutive seasons of disappointment. The Rossoneri want to emulate clubs like Torino and Sassuolo who are currently fielding nearly an entire starting XI of Italians, and have found success doing it.

The former Prime Minister must have been pleased to note that eight out of Milan’s starting XI against Lazio were indeed Italian. Moreover, with the 3-1 win in the capital, Sinisa Mihajlovic’s men sit just four points off third-place.

Although the club’s past transfer windows have often been unable to forge a sense of completeness and stability to the squad, the additions of Alessio Romagnoli from Roma and Davide Calabria from Milan’s primavera side have been noteworthy and exceptional.

At just 20 and 18 years of age, the introduction of these two defenders in this campaign creates a real possibility of forming a formidable backline for years to come.

Romagnoli spent last season on loan at Sampdoria under his current manager, making 30 league appearances and winning plaudits from around the peninsula. The Italian giants purchased the left-footed centre-back in a deal worth €25 million plus possible bonuses, and has already proved to be a great signing for Milan.

The 20-year-old possesses great technique in his dribbling and passing abilities and can also feature at left-back. His intelligent positioning allows him to meet defenders head on and eloquently dispossess them of the ball. Impressively, the former Roma man has won 78% of his headed duels and recorded 86% passing accuracy this season.

Composed and confident, Romagnoli’s patience on the ball speaks volume for how mature he is for his age.

Romagnoli has had to pair up with Cristian Zapata, Alex and Rodrigo Ely in the back this season under Mihajlovic. But despite the shuffling of defenders, the 20-year-old has kept his concentration levels high and has been one of Milan’s bright spots so far this season.

However, as he appears quite lean, the young centre-back should enhance his game by bulking up and getting stronger in order to battle the game’s fiercest attackers.

While Romagnoli is marshalling the centre of defence, Calabria has stepped in and provided quality at right-back. The 18-year-old rose through the ranks of the Rossoneri’s academy, making 47 appearances, before making his senior debut this season.

Calabria has a delicate first touch and great close control. In his three matches played so far, he has showcased considerable pace down the right-flank as well as an impressive amount of stamina and endurance.

Explosive, dynamic and alert, he has proved to be a solid right-back option for the likes of Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio.

The youth product completed his debut against Palermo in the fourth round of Serie A play, coming on for the injured Abate, helping his side to a 3-2 win.

Calabria was then handed a start in the club’s next match against Udinese. He put in a solid shift and surprisingly, was subbed off for Alex just five minutes after half-time.

It turned out to be a poor move by Mihajlovic as the Rossoneri would concede a pair of goals and almost threw away their 3-0 lead. Nonetheless, the academy product would complete the full 90 away to Genoa, which unfortunately ended in a 1-0 loss.

Looking at his performances, Calabria has prided himself in moments of decisiveness. Not daunted by the high level of play, the right-back has averaged 4.7 tackles and 1.3 appearances per match.

Aggressive and always looking to push forward to join the attack, Calabria represents the modern day fullback. He also has the ability to pick out a pass, having created three chances thus far, the second most of any other Milan defender.

An area in which Calabria should look to improve in is his overall passing. While he possesses good intentions, his over eagerness at times lets him down, resulting in numerous misplaced passes. He has recorded 67% passing accuracy this term, which is the lowest return of any outfield play of his side bar Philippe Mexes.

Calabria will have to continue to battle with Abate and De Sciglio for a starting place this season, but when called up, the 18-year-old will show his quality. Furthermore, his good form won him a call-up to his country’s under-21 setup last month.

All in all, with Milan’s hopes of returning to the pinnacle of Italian football, entrusting in two young, Italian talents in Romagnoli and Calabria is a wise choice in establishing a solid foundation for future success.

About the author – Matthew Amalfitano

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.

twitter: _MattFootball


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The Eternal City has hosted some of the game’s all-time greats: Conti. Falcao. Chinaglia. None, however, are greater than current captain and eternal symbol, Francesco Totti. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to label the local boy as one of European football’s greatest talents. Further to that, on talent alone, Totti may well lay claim to being one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. His skill is at times immeasurable, for what he brings to Roma is unique and everlasting.

Strangely it’s romance that may never have blossomed. It is widely accepted that Totti’s mother turned down a lucrative offer from AC Milan so that he could join his hometown club, a dream that was realised in 1989. Foreseen as one for the future by Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani – whilst Arrigo Sacchi went about revolutionizing calcio with his invincible Milan team of the early-90s – the pair must be left rueing the what ifs had Totti indeed joined the Milan revolution.

However, despite all evidence to the contrary, given the success of his remarkable career, it would be safe to assume that such presumptuous hindsight would be flawed, given the very nature of Totti’s success with Roma, the one and only club he has ever represented professionally.

Like so many geniuses, his career is flawed; blotted by moments of madness. Controversy has followed Il Bimbo d’Oro (The Golden Boy) throughout his career and his psyche remains one of the most intriguing and unpredictable in the game.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Totti is that he’s still here; still gracing our screens with match-winning performances and memorable goals like last season’s Champions League effort against Manchester City. Still bringing hope to a city besieged with socio-economic and cultural problems. Still giving hope to the thousands of children who dream of becoming the next “monument” in Italian football. Still keeping alive the romantic dream of the classic trequartista.

He is, along with Juan Roman Riquelme, quite possibly the last of the aforementioned breed. He still relies on technique, vision and precision – much like he did on March 28, 1993, when he made his debut in an unremarkable 2-0 away victory against Brescia. His genius lies in his three unrivalled skills: the ability to create something from nothing off either foot, the supreme and deadly finishing, which has brought him almost 250 Serie A goals, and the confidence with which he goes about his business. Who can, of course, forget his Panenka from Euro 2000 against the Netherlands?

His genius also lies in his psyche. His feet are natural. Touching a ball, striking perfectly with ease, comes naturally. However his mind is what separates him from the rest. He thinks ahead. He’s the enigma who has carried his hometown club for over two decades and won a World Cup along the way.

Some managers have tried to negate the enigmatic Italian’s influence. Luis Enrique notably paid the price. Not necessarily because he lost his job, but because Roma lacked invention, skill and unpredictability. Perhaps Fabio Capello laid the blueprint on how to use Totti back in 2001: don’t stop using him. Make him the focal point of every attacking move and let him carry the burden. He can, he’s certainly strong of mind.

His stats are sublime – Totti has played more than half of his footballing career as a classic trequartista and yet, has managed to score more than greats like Del Piero, Baggio and Batistuta; players who had more freedom to score as forwards and have played more or less the same number of matches as the Roma captain.

Who can forget his 113th strike back in the 2005-06 season at San Siro against Inter, where his majestic chip from outside the box sailed over a stranded Francesco Toldo? That goal is perhaps one of the greatest chips scored in Italian football. Sadly, having suffered a career threatening injury a few months later, many feared that they’d seen the last of the star at the very top of the game.

But his love for football and Rome helped him recuperate in time to be selected by Marcello Lippi for the 2006 World Cup in Germany where he played every match and, having contributed four assists and the crucial last minute penalty against Australia in the second round, was one of the protagonists of the world conquering Italian side. That was some comeback, and for his never-ending fight to stay fit even after the age of 35, he deserves nothing but respect.

At 39, he’s fitter and stronger than most players from his era still playing the game. Perhaps he can’t drift around like he used to, especially in the channels, however his ability to find space in key areas ensures he remains one of the game’s most dangerous players. Just ask Vincent Kompany. For a man who many considered to be past his best when Luis Enrique took charge in 2011, he has improved and grown yet again. Just like any eternal being would.

People spend plenty of time asking Totti why he never moved clubs in search of trophies but the truth is, why would he? He is the soul of Roma, lauded as their saviour and afforded hero status; he loves the adulation. Always a man in search of greater purpose to find motivation in performing his magic on the pitch, Roma has long presented itself as the ideal foil for him to find his way to superstardom.

The relationship between Roma and Totti is of mutual benefit. Roma need their captain to galvanize the team and Totti needs a major stage to shine on – it’s not difficult to see why Totti remains motivated and hungry to carry on. Thankfully for the world of football, Totti made the right decision to turn AC Milan down as a child. He hasn’t looked back since.

This isn’t to say he hasn’t had offers. Real Madrid came on occasions and were politely ushered away. Manchester United tried their luck in 1999 and 2000. Ferguson had openly spoken of his admiration for Totti’s talent and his desire to see him grace Old Trafford. Perhaps his incessant desire to turn away potential suitors and remain in Rome is what deters some quarters of the English media from truly praising him.

The ever condescending English media never really admired him the way they did other players but their silly knack of judging foreigners based on their performances against English sides – like Zlatan Ibrahimovic – has done little to disparage the Italian who, according to IFFHS, was the most the popular footballer in the whole of Europe as late as 2011.

For Totti, he will ultimately judge his career on what he’s given back to the Romans who he calls “his people”.

Trophies are a bonus and the 2001 Scudetto will surely sit proudly alongside his European Golden Shoe in 2007 and World Cup winner’s medal. Factor in his five Italian Player of the Year awards and he will no doubt sleep easy.

Success is subjective. Ask Alan Hansen and he’ll tell you it’s all about what trophies you have in your cabinet. Ask Steven Gerrard or Paolo Maldini, however, and they’ll point to Hansen’s fact, alongside the achievement of playing for one club, the club you love, your entire career.

For Totti, his subjectivity cannot be criticised. For him, he’s given more back to the people of Rome than any trophy can. He’s given them loyalty and hope – a role model and a “monument” as Lippi calls him. He’s given them the chance to live each game through a man who wandered the same streets as they did as boy. Most importantly, however, he’s kept their identity alive.

In an Italy where identity and social segregation becomes an ever increasing and contentious topic, he’s united the people of various clubs and groups. He’s the monument that unites the Eternal City.

About the author – Omar Saleen

Based in London, Omar is the editor-in-chief at These Football Times. A professional coach by day having worked at clubs including Fulham, QPR and Red Bull New York, he also writes freelance for a number of outlets.

twitter: @omar_saleem


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