Italy National Soccer: Italian Stars That Are Impressing Outside of Serie A
Italy is distinctive amongst many of the top international sides in the world in that nearly all of the players that make up its player pool perform in its own domestic league. There are, however, several players that make up a key part of Italy's squad that have gotten on Cesare Prandelli's radar by impressing in a foreign league.
The following players have made themselves a name in the international world holding an Italian passport but while playing far afield.
Club: Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)
After starting his career as a centre-back, the former Juventus and Genoa man moved to Zenit St. Petersburg during the summer transfer window of 2011, and he has turned himself into one of the world's better left-backs.
He was poised to possibly break out as quite possibly the world's very best a year ago in the run-up to Euro 2012. However, an accusation in connection to the calcioscommesse scandal saw him unceremoniously dropped from the side on the eve of the tournament.
It was an unfortunate development for a player that has a huge amount skill that he has only just started realizing. Criscito has now returned to the national team setup over World Cup qualifying, and has resumed his impressive play for Zenit.
In three Champions League matches this year, he averaged 4.3 tackles, four interceptions and four clearances a game while completing 83 percent of his passes from the back, garnering a solid 7.05 rating from WhoScored.com.
Criscito is the total package when you look at a defender. He's excellent in the tackle, excellent at playing opposing passes and intercepting them, and is great in the air, making him a force both at the back and as a threat in attack, especially on set pieces. He should continue to be a huge part of the national team setup for years to come.
Club: Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Thiago Motta's departure from Inter in the winter 2012 transfer window punctuated the misery that fans of the nerazzurri went through last season.
The Brazilian-born Italy international claimed that his own decision to leave the San Siro was prompted by the unexpected sale of striker Samuel Eto'o the summer before. Eventually he traded the blue and black of Inter for the blue and red of French nouveau riche side Paris Saint-Germain, where he's garnered a total of 24 caps to date.
Hindered by the injury he suffered in the final at Euro 2012, he's now played 10 times this year, scoring once. Not usually a goalscoring threat, Motta's strength is in his physicality (he's averaging three tackles a game out of his central midfield positions) and passing skills (a 90.9 percent completion rate and 6.2 accurate long balls per game). He doesn't rack up a lot of assists, but he sets up the players that do.
Motta hasn't played for the national team since the Euro final, and at 30 his window for international soccer may be closing. Still, a player of his caliber could prove useful for Italy as the team moves deeper into the World Cup cycle.
Club: Spartak Moscow (Russia)
Bocchetti recently moved from one Russian side to another in the January transfer window. He is yet to play after making the move to Spartak Moscow from Rubin Kazan but he was very effective for Kazan over the last three seasons.
Who Scored gave him a 7.26 rating over four Europa League appearances for Kazan this season, averaging 3.3 tackles per game and five and a half clearances. He also completed 89 percent of his passes and connected an impressive 5.5 long balls from the back.
Bocchetti has garnered five caps at the senior level, and he has a lot of competition for spots in the centre of the Italian defense, but he's proven himself before—Marcello Lippi selected him for the 2010 World Cup squad, and he was on the provisional squad for Euro 2012.
Sardinia-born goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu broke into professional soccer with Palermo, where he impressed manager Walter Zenga and was installed as the rosaneri No. 1 goalkeeper in 2006. He eventually caught the eye of PSG, who snapped him up from the Sicilian outfit in 2011.
Sirigu quickly became a fan-favorite, and on January 27 he set the club record for consecutive minutes without conceding a goal at 775. He's racked up 16 clean sheets in 22 starts in Ligue 1 this season, and made 50 saves, to go along with 19 saves in Champions League play this season.
Sirigu was the first goalkeeper Prandelli chose to start for the Italians after the 2010 World Cup while Gianluigi Buffon recovered from the back injury he suffered in South Africa, although he was soon felled by an injury of his own and supplanted by Emiliano Viviano and Morgan De Sanctis. He was the No. 3 keeper behind De Sanctis at Euro 2012, but really should be moved ahead of the aging Napoli man to back up Buffon full-time.
Club: Newcastle United (England)
Equally adept on either flank in defense, Davide Santon is one of the few Italians viewers can find in the English Premier League, having arrived from Inter in 2011.
The up-and-coming player was a revelation at Inter, garnering comparisons to Paolo Maldini and receiving praise from no less than Cristiano Ronaldo after the young back helped shut him down when Inter faced off with CR7's Manchester United squad in a Champions League tie.
Santon has started 26 times for Toon this season, assisting two goals and has completed 85 percent of his passes in all competitions this season. His dribbling skill allows him to represent a constant threat on the offensive side of the ball while still being able to track back and defend well.
Recently back into the picture of the national team after appearing against the Netherlands, Santon's best asset is his versatility, as he can fill holes at both left- and right-back.
He'll likely be competing with Ignazio Abate for the right-back job now, but will have to look over his shoulder with Milan youngster Mattia De Sciglio developing into a potential superstar on the flanks.
Position: Central midfield (regista)
PSG has amassed the largest collection of Italians outside of the peninsula, and the jewel of their collection might be the 20-year-old Verratti.
The youngster is the latest in a line of players that the Italian media has dubbed the "next Andrea Pirlo," but he's the first player that can actually be worthy of that title. Converted to a regista by Zdenek Zeman at Pescara, Verratti led the delfini to their first promotion to Serie A in more than 20 years, and PSG swooped in to beat Juventus for his signature this summer.
In both French and European competition he has completed 89.4 percent of his passes, dialing up three assists in domestic play. His game is so like Pirlo's he's even started replicating his skill at long balls, averaging nearly seven per game in Champions League play this year.
He's also already better in the tackle than Pirlo—though that skill in the tackle also comes with a need for better discipline, as he's garnered 11 yellow cards in all competitions, including one in Tuesday's Champions League match against Valencia which saw him suspended for the second leg of the round of 16 tie.
Verratti has struggled for playing time at PSG since the return of Thiago Motta from his injury, but that hasn't deterred Prandelli from including him on his last three rosters as well as his provisional squad for Euro 2012. He even started the youngster over Pirlo in November's friendly against France.
Verratti will likely get most of his time in friendlies for the time being, but if Pirlo retires from international competition as expected after the 2014 World Cup, the keys to the Italian attack will likely be handed to this wunderkind, the true successor of Andrea Pirlo.
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