Italian football, or Calcio, is entering a new era with a bright bunch of new, youthful players making an impact as they rise through the ranks of their respective football clubs. Every country gets a phase where there’s a carousel of immense talent coming through that forms a “golden generation”, and that phase has come once again for the Azzurri as they look to win a record-tying fifth World Cup honour in the near future.
The country’s biggest football clubs ranging from the usual suspects of AC Milan and Juventus to the emerging Sassuolo and Atalanta amongst many others are seeing a fine group fighting it out at their academies and some of them are even making it to the senior setups at their respective sides.
THE TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSES
AC Milan have come to prominence over the course of 2016, giving debuts and consistent spells in the first team to 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who’s been sensational in his breakthrough year as a professional footballer and exemplified his importance to the team with a brave performance in the recent Italian Supercoppa final in Doha, where he saved a match-winning penalty in the shoot-outs.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”it” dir=”ltr”>GRAPHIC: Gianluigi Buffon vs Gianluigi Donnarumma <a href=”https://t.co/j2S9h6eKjM”>https://t.co/j2S9h6eKjM</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/JuveMilan?src=hash”>#JuveMilan</a> <a href=”https://t.co/stl0vVH2eG”>pic.twitter.com/stl0vVH2eG</a></p>— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) <a href=”https://twitter.com/WhoScored/status/812256894928752641″>December 23, 2016</a></blockquote>
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Manuel Locatelli, too is another member of a budding Rossoneri who’ve cut their teeth at the highest professional level of Italian football. Locatelli made his full Serie A debut against AS Roma at the end of the 2015-16 season, and in the new campaign, under new manager Vincenzo Montella, he’s been given greater opportunity, taking over from frequently-injured captain Riccardo Montolivo in midfield. He’s made the most of his chances, scoring two match-winning Serie A goals – one against Sassuolo, and one against champions Juventus.
Sassuolo and Juventus themselves have one special player in common – Domenico Berardi, who is the Neroverdi’s highest goal scorer of all time at the mere age of 22. The forward has been at the club since 2012, when they were in Serie B and has been a bright spark to Eusebio Di Francesco’s side as they’ve gone from the depths of Italian football to the Europa League within a decade. Di Francesco has been a major factor behind that rise and many tip him to be the man to lead Italy to their next World Cup success.
Also amongst the Sassuolo ranks is 20-year-old former AS Roma player Lorenzo Pellegrini who left the Giallorossi in the summer of 2015 to fulfill his potential in Modena. He’s got it all in his locker, and his leadership qualities and responsibility at such a young age are a testament to what he can become in the future. He was the captain of Roma’s youth side while he played at the capital and is now a key figure in the Sassuolo midfield. Often compared to former teammate Miralem Pjanic, Pellegrini is a great asset to have off set-pieces and is an equally gifted midfielder when performing his duties in defence.
SUPREME ATTACKING LINE-UP
And while Milan and Modena have a host of brilliant young players, Turin, in the north-west of Italy, isn’t lagging too far behind, especially in attack. Both clubs have a forward each in contrasting phases of their careers. Andrea Belotti, who just turned 23 in December has been in sensational form this season having scored 13 Serie A goals in 16 appearances so far – the second highest behind Inter’s Mauro Icardi. He even earned his first Italy call-up in 2016 and has bagged 3 goals in 5 appearances for the Azzurri so far.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Andrea Belotti: Only Edin Dzeko & Mauro Icardi (both 12) have scored more goals than Belotti (11) in Serie A this season</p>— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) <a href=”https://twitter.com/WhoScored/status/807953095883886592″>December 11, 2016</a></blockquote>
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Juventus, meanwhile, have 16-year-old Moise Kean who made history this season by becoming the first player born in the 2000s to feature in any of Europe’s top 5 leagues as well as the UEFA Champions League, when he made substitute appearances against Pescara and Sevilla respectively. Yet to prove himself at the top level, his form for his youth sides is fairly decent – 5 in 12 for his country’s U17s. Blessed with immense natural ability, and his speed and skill with the ball often proves to be severely problematic for opposition defenders and he could well be the man spearheading his teams’ frontlines the next decade and a half or so.
STRONG IN DEFENCE
The Italian production line of quality centre-halves doesn’t look like stopping either, with the likes of Juventus stalwarts Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli not getting any younger, it looks like they already have the perfect replacements waiting for them. AC Milan’s 21-year-old defender Alessio Romagnoli is often compared to Chiellini for his fearless style and also has a bit of Bonucci in him with his brilliant range of passing.
Juventus themselves have someone ready to step in when either one of the three decide to call it a day. Daniele Rugani has had a more consistent spell in the first team following his arrival from Empoli in the summer of 2015 at the end of his loan spell there. He’s very similar to Romagnoli and standing at 6 feet 3 inches tall, is a key asset to the side in the air, whether that’s offensively or defensively.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Atalanta have enjoyed a really fine season so far and currently sit sixth in the Serie A standings, above traditional powerhouses Inter Milan and just three points behind Napoli, who occupy third spot and the final Champions League qualification slot. Credit for that is due to the emergence of centre-half Mattia Caldara and midfielder Roberto Gagliardini who’ve been given a major role in the side by manager Gian Piero Gasperini.
Caldara has spent all his career at Atalanta and after loan spells away Trapani and Cesena over the last two years, he’s finally cemented his spot in the Atalanta first team. The 22-year-old has emerged as one of the league’s best defenders over the course of this season and his responsibility at the back has reportedly earned him a move to Juventus who have reportedly struck a deal with the Bergamo club to bring him to Turin in the summer of 2017.
His team-mate, Gagliardini has also been with Atalanta all his life and has also had the experience of loan spells away from the club. A stern midfielder, his skill with the ball ranks as one of the best in the league and he’s been rewarded for his consistency this season with a first ever call-up to the Italian national team when they participated in the World Cup qualifiers against Liechtenstein and a friendly against Germany in November.
There’s a whole host of talent coming from every part of the country and Florence hasn’t been out of the party as well. Federico Bernadeschi has lit up the Serie A with some fantastic wing-play for Fiorentina over the course of the season. His versatility has been of great benefit to Fiorentina and he’s been a great attribute in attack. 10 goals so far in 24 games across all competitions has seen him become one of the most wanted footballers across Europe and has the like of Chelsea and PSG reportedly willing to pay big money for him.
His team-mate Federico Chiesa, son of Enrico Chiesa – a man who represented Italy at Euro ’96 and the World Cup of ’98, has entered the fold this season and also bagged his first goal against Qarabag in the Europa League. A brave dribbler with a fierce right foot, he’s also got a fiery temper having received half a dozen bookings in the 2013-14 season in just 23 appearances for the junior side, as well as a double-yellow in the same game he got his first goal in.
Italy could well be having another golden generation with potential world-beaters brewing from every part of the country. Russia 2018 may be too soon for these sensational, up-and-coming footballers, but add 5 years to the ages of these young men and they could all well be at the peak of their careers, just in time for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 as they look to win a historic fifth World Cup honour.